Friday, April 26, 2019

Avengers Endgame: Epic in every respect

Avengers Endgame (2019) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, sci-fi action and mild profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.26.19

Like, wow.

When reflecting on what has brought us to this point — 21 cleverly interlocking earlier films, starting with 2008’s Iron Man, all of them stitched together with the meticulous expertise of a master weaver — we can only shake our heads in wonder.

In desperate need of some good news, the remaining Avengers — from left, Natasha
Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner (Mark
Ruffalo) and James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) — are startled by what has just descended
from the night sky.
The flow chart alone must’ve been a nightmare.

The Marvel Universe series has delivered impressive highs and regrettable lows, but even the latter have maintained the all-important continuity. And with respect to the former, one team has stood proud since 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier; co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo, allied with co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. They subsequently brought us 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and both halves of the all-stops-out Avengers blockbuster that concludes with this skillfully crafted Endgame.

As the saying goes, this one has it all (and them all). Thrills, chills and spills. You’ll laugh; you’ll grit your teeth; you’ll be on the edge of your seat; you’ll cry. Indeed, you may cry a lot, depending on the degree to which you’ve bonded with this galaxy of characters.

Few of today’s so-called epics can justify a protracted length that feels self-indulgent long before the final act. Ergo, the mere thought of this one’s 181 minutes might be intimidating. Don’t worry. Russo & Russo, working closely with editors Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt, make every minute count. They understand the crucial importance of quieter, character-enhancing moments.

I haven’t been this satisfied with a marathon finale since 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. (And that was even longer, at 201 minutes.)

This isn’t merely a lot of tedious sturm und drang, like most of the grimly dour, landscape-leveling entries from the competing DC universe. Markus and McFeely work on our hearts; the awesomely huge cast makes us care. They believe in these characters; as a result, we can’t help doing the same.

One crucial element becomes more obvious, as this film proceeds. Despite the fact that Steve Rogers’ Captain America (Chris Evans) has long been teased as the Avengers’ quaintly clichéd rah-rah, always quick to offer corny pep talks, he’s not the heart and soul of this franchise. That position belongs to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man, who has always — as he does again here — brought just the right dignity and spirit to these ginormous adventures.

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Mustang: A thoroughbred

The Mustang (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity, drug content and violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.12.19

Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre isn’t afraid to minimize dialog.

The impatient Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts) gets absolutely nowhere during his early
sessions with the wild buckskin he has named Marquis. The reason is simple: The
horse isn't about to yield to a man who radiates such impatience and anger.
More than most, the Paris-born filmmaker understands the dramatic impact of silence and ambient sounds; she trusts her actors, cinematographer (Ruben Impens) and editor (Géraldine Mangenot) to shape and tell the story.

De Clermont-Tonnerre recognizes that cinema is a visual medium, where the accomplished manipulation of image is just as important as anything else … if not more so. This isn’t radio, where long speeches are necessary to convey context.

A good film director lets us see it, digest it. And confidently expects us to get it.

Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts), halfway through an 11-year sentence for domestic violence at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, has resisted rehabilitation efforts. We meet him during a session with the prison psychologist (Connie Britton), who can’t get much out of him. Roman is stoic, wary and uncooperative.

“I’m not good with people,” he finally mumbles.

She therefore assigns him to the prison’s “outdoor maintenance” program.

As we learn during an introductory text screen, the public rangelands in our 10 western states are home to roughly 100,000 wild horses that struggle to survive in an environment that can comfortably support roughly one-quarter that many. To help stabilize the population and prevent habitat destruction, thousands are captured each year by the Bureau of Land Management; the lucky ones are adopted, while many spend the rest of their lives in long-term holding facilities.

(Watching a herd rounded up by helicopter, as the film begins, is a jaw-dropper. Who knew?)

Since 1990, a few hundred have been sent every year to the Wild Horse Inmate Program, where they’re trained for sale at public auction.

The results are impressive — astonishing, even — for both men and mustangs. As dog lovers already know, an animal’s unconditional love, and obvious lack of judgment, can reassure and help a damaged individual learn how to re-socialize.

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Highwaymen: Old dogs on the hunt

The Highwaymen (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for strong violence and bloody images

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.5.19

Some actors are inherently captivating, even when their characters are engaged in activities that aren’t otherwise cinematically interesting.

Having detected a possible pattern to Bonnie and Clyde's movements, Many Gault
(Woody Harrelson, left) and Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) hope to be on hand,
the next time the outlaws strike.
That’s definitely true of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, who make an art form of quiet, contemplative brooding in director John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen. Both are note-perfect as — respectively — Texas Rangers Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, brought out of retirement in early 1934, in order to hunt down Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.

John Fusco’s thoughtful, fact-based screenplay does much to undo the historical damage wrought by 1967’s pop culture-oriented Bonnie and Clyde. At the same time, Fusco slyly acknowledges the dangerous “cult of celebrity” that made the outlaws attractive to people beaten down by Depression-era poverty, who naively — stupidly — believed that two kill-crazy sociopaths were “looking out for the common folks.”

(That dynamic similarly blinds the percentage of today’s American public that continues to worship at the altar of a narcissist who repeatedly worsens their lives.)

Although Bonnie and Clyde’s increasingly violent crime spree had continued for two years — in part — due to overwhelmed small-town police departments not yet able to coordinate effectively with each other, the challenge of catching the outlaws was exacerbated by civilians disinclined to help. But that sentiment began to shift after Jan. 16, 1934, when the gang freed a quartet of inmates from Texas’ Eastham Prison Farm, shooting two guards in the process. (One died two weeks later.)

This was the last straw for Texas Gov. Miriam Amanda Wallace “Ma” Ferguson (an appropriately feisty Kathy Bates), and it’s where Hancock’s film begins. Despite opposition from Bureau of Investigation agents — soon to become the FBI — Ferguson lets her Department of Corrections chief (John Carroll Lynch, as Lee Simmons) seek out Hamer, long respected as a dedicated and dogged law enforcement officer.

Despite that, he’d been forced into retirement after Ferguson disbanded the Texas Rangers the previous year (political revenge, after the agency had backed her election opponent). We meet Hamer on a typical morning, as he putters silently around the lovely home shared with wife Gladys (Kim Dickens). We get a sense that she’s constantly busy with volunteer work, whereas Costner’s resigned, slightly aimless expression speaks volumes about a man who has lost his purpose in life.

Even so, Hamer is disinclined to accept Simmons’ request, in part due to a reluctant recognition of age-related limitations, and also by way of respecting Gladys’ legitimate fear over the assignment’s obvious dangers. The die is cast when Bonnie and Clyde are involved in another violent confrontation in Missouri.

Storm Boy: A touching little fable

Storm Boy (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

This lovingly mounted, deeply moving Australian drama brought back memories of The Snow Goose.

When Mike (Finn Little) is accompanied by his three foundling friends during a visit to the
nearby village, folks can't help staring. (Wouldn't you?)
I was 15 when director Patrick Garland’s poignant adaptation of Paul Gallico’s 1941 novella aired as a Hallmark Hall of Fame special in November 1971; the final scenes left me shattered for weeks. Seeing it again, decades later — much better able to understand the Dunkirk element — I was moved anew, identifying more this time with Richard Harris’ Philip Rhayader, than with young Jenny Agutter’s Fritha.

All this came tumbling back while enjoying director Shawn Seet’s equally sensitive handling of Colin Thiele’s 1963 children’s book. Storm Boy — both the original story, and this beautifully structured film — has the magical, slightly other-worldly atmosphere of a fairy tale, while at the same time being grounded in real-world disputes as relevant today, as they were half a century ago.

Seet and scripter Justin Monjo have added a framing device, to bring the story into the modern era; this liberty doesn’t detract at all from Thiele’s original narrative, and in fact serves as a reminder that the battle between industry and environment — even now — too frequently favors the former.

Successful retired businessman Michael Kingley (Geoffrey Rush) has returned briefly as a senior director on his company’s board, for a meeting that will determine whether a mining company can base its operation in Western Australia’s Pilbara. The vote seems a foregone conclusion, much to the dismay of Michael’s environmentally impassioned 17-year-old granddaughter, Maddy (Morgana Davies).

But then, an odd — almost supernatural — event: A sudden, massive storm shatters one of the board room windows, delaying the vote by a day. Michael returns to the house he’s temporarily sharing with Maddy’s family; perhaps more eerily, he briefly sees a trio of pelicans that … well … aren’t there. Sensing his unease, Maddy questions him: Michael obligingly relates the story of his quite unusual childhood.

And, thus, we’re transported back to the late 1950s, where cinematographer Bruce Young so gorgeously captures the sweeping majesty and isolation of South Australia’s Coorong, and its 90-Mile Beach: a coastal wilderness where young Mike (11-year-old Finn Little, in a winning feature debut) lives in a rustic bungalow with his reclusive father, known as Hideaway Tom (Jai Courtney). He keeps them in supplies by catching fish and selling them in the nearby village; young Mike — whom everybody calls “Storm Boy” — helps as best he can. 

Schooling is limited to reading aloud from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, with Mike’s father gently correcting pronunciation errors.

Shazam!: Power failure

Shazam! (2019) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, and quite generously, for scary fantasy violence, intense action and relentless mental cruelty

By Derrick Bang

There’s an old parable about three blind men encountering an elephant for the first time.

“It’s a snake,” says the first, having felt the trunk.

With the eager help of Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, left), who imaginatively suggests a
series of potential powers, the newly christened Shazam (Zachary Levi) discovers
that — among other things — he can shoot powerful lightning bolts from his fingers.
“No, it’s a spear,” opines the second, awed by the long, sharp tusk.

“It’s definitely a tree,” insists the third, unable to wrap his arms around one of the huge legs.

Scripters Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke — and, I’m certain, a sizable number of uncredited “sweeteners” — are the blind men, and this film is their elephant.

Shazam! feels like it was “written” by half a dozen people — one of whom is a sadist — working independent of each other. Apparently the resulting pages then were jammed together randomly, with no attempt to integrate tone, characterization or (God forbid) plot continuity.

And, hey presto! That’s how you get a movie as inept, haphazard and insufferably stupid as this one.

Newbie horror director David F. Sandberg (Lights OutAnnabelle: Creation) brings nothing to the party, and how could he? He has no meaningful template, from which to construct anything remotely artistic.

This Frankenstein’s monster of a flick is best described as Big (the 1988 Tom Hanks comedy) meets television’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, with the intelligence of the latter. Adults are advised to steer well clear, and I’m pretty sure even children will curl their lips with disgust.

When superhero movies go bad, they go very bad.

You’d think Warner Bros. would have learned, after 2011’s equally atrocious handling of Green Lantern, that the “Oh, wow; aren’t these powers cool?!” approach to these stories doesn’t work. At all.

Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with humor; indeed, a certain degree of smirky self-awareness is essential. But too much disrespects the nobility of these modern mythic characters, who (for the most part) deserve a measure of reverence. They’re not cartoons.

Gayden and Lemke treat this character — who dates back to 1939 (!) — as if he were a 5-minute Saturday Night Live sketch. Trouble is, this film runs a butt-numbing 132 minutes.