Friday, June 28, 2019

Yesterday: Got to get it into our lives!

Yesterday (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for fleeting profanity and mildly suggestive content

By Derrick Bang

Richard Curtis isn’t just wildly imaginative; he writes the sharpest flirty and snarky dialog going these days.

Having agreed to meet hyper-aggressive Hollywood agent Debra Hammer (Kate
McKinnon), Jack (Himesh Patel) is overwhelmed by the ambitious plans that she has for
a career he hasn't yet realized is within his grasp.
He’s one of very few modern film scripters who understands precisely how to replicate the rat-a-tat banter that characterized classic Hollywood romantic comedies of the late 1930s and ’40s, while also acknowledging modern touches. He has an uncanny ear for the boisterous chatter of a group dynamic, and — most crucially — he shapes even the most minor throwaway characters with equal care.

Nobody is superfluous in a Curtis screenplay; everybody has a significant part to play. Compare this to what we get from far too many of today’s lazy scripters, who focus exclusively on a given film’s stars, leaving the supporting players hanging uselessly, like clothes on a closet rack.

I hope Great Britain appreciates Curtis as a treasure — much like Hollywood’s Aaron Sorkin — because he certainly deserves such recognition.

(I also find it quite droll that one of Curtis’ most celebrated earlier assignments — given his flair for cunning discourse — was concocting escapades for Rowan Atkinson’s essentially mute Mr. Bean.)

Partnered with the equally astute Danny Boyle in the director’s chair, Curtis and co-writer Jack Barth have spun a truly delectable fantasy out of the irresistible premise that fuels Yesterday:

What if you woke up one morning, and discovered you were the only person on Earth who remembered The Beatles, and their superlative catalog of songs?

What would you do?

But that comes a bit later. Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is introduced as a struggling singer/songwriter in the tiny seaside town of Suffolk: a guy whose enthusiasm and guitar chops can’t quite compensate for mediocre lyrics and an uninspiring, working-class image. He’s just about ready to give it up, despite the fierce devotion and support of childhood best friend and de facto manager Ellie Appleton (Lily James).

Ellie also has been carrying a one-sided torch for 20 years, a blindingly obvious detail that has eluded Jack for the same period. (The notion that anybody could fail to recognize such affection from somebody who looks like Lily James stretches credibility, but we must roll with it.)

Friday, June 21, 2019

Toy Story 4: Shopworn

Toy Story 4 (2019) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated G, despite some scary sequences

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.21.19

The familiar faces are as welcome as longtime friends; the new characters are both adorable and — in some cases — shiveringly disturbing; the dialog remains witty and funny; the incidental encounters are amusing, clever and well-paced; the voice talent is as sharp as ever.

Bo Peep, aware of the dangers awaiting those who unwisely venture into the antique
store's main aisles, carefully leads her friends — Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Bunny, Ducky
and (on her shoulder) Giggle McDimples — behind dusty cabinets, as they try to rescue
a captured comrade.
But the driving plotline for Toy Story 4 — arguably, the reason for the film’s existence — isn’t nearly as satisfying as those of its predecessors. It feels contrived, rather than organic. The whole remains less than the sum of its well-crafted parts.

One can’t help feeling that this is a case of Slinky Dog’s tail wagging the rest of its body: a film dictated more by crass commerce than artistic justification.

2010’s Toy Story 3 gave the franchise a warm sense of closure, with now-grown Andy passing his beloved plaything companions to preschool-age Bonnie. As we’ve constantly been reminded, a toy’s noblest endeavor is to bring comfort and enchantment to an imaginative child: a mission that cannot be accomplished if tucked into a box that gets stored in an attic, like Puff the Magic Dragon sadly slipping into his cave.

Toy Story 4 similarly concludes with a different sort of torch-passing, which — depending on one’s emotional involvement with these characters — will prompt tears, bewilderment, snorts of displeasure, or a feeling of outright betrayal.

Full disclosure: I don’t approve of what scripters Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom — working from a story by eight (!) credited writers, including John Lasseter and Rashida Jones — have wrought.

But that comes much later.

The film begins with a prologue dating back to Andy’s era, which explains why Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts) was MIA in Toy Story 3. She, her three sheep — Billy, Goat and Gruff — and matching lamp were tumbled into a box with other items to be donated elsewhere, much to the dismay of Woody (Tom Hanks). Turns out he’s long nurtured a crush for Bo Peep, likely to the surprise of those who figured he and feisty Jessie (Joan Cusack) were an unspoken item.

Back in the present day, Woody is enduring insult on top of injury, since little Bonnie prefers to pin his sheriff’s badge on Jessie. Woody, in turn, has been relegated to the back reaches of a closet laden with other neglected toys: among them Melephant Brooks (Mel Brooks), Carl Reineroceros (Carl Reiner) and Chairol Burnett (Carol Burnett).

That’s a cute bit of stunt casting, but their appearances are so brief, you’ll scarcely notice.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco: Heartfelt and compelling

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity, drug use and brief nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.28.19

Identity and serenity are shaped, in great part, by the stability of place.

Somewhere to call home, where one can shelter from life’s trials and tribulations. Where one can relax, and be at peace.

Mont (Jonathan Majors, left), ubiquitous notebook in hand, worries that Jimmie
(Jimmie Fails) has set his expectations too high, when it comes to his desire to care for a
Victorian house that holds a strong personal attachment.
Indie filmmaker Joe Talbot’s impressive feature debut couldn’t be better timed, arriving amid the rising tsunami of national homelessness: particularly acute in California, and at crisis levels in metropolitan regions such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. It seems exceptionally tragic in Baghdad by the Bay, where tent communities and sidewalk derelicts clash so tragically with the romantic atmosphere and storied neighborhoods of a city that has fueled dreams for generations.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a deeply moving saga of friendship, fractured families, and the devastating hunger to belong — to stillbelong — in a city that seems to have turned its back on native sons and daughters. Talbot, a fifth-generation San Franciscan, co-wrote the story with best friend Jimmie Fails, drawing heavily on the latter’s actual childhood experiences; the script received an assist from Rob Richert, who teaches filmmaking at San Quentin Prison.

The resulting narrative has a firm sense of atmosphere and “street” that feels absolutely — often painfully — authentic. Talbot also grants his characters an aura of grace and nobility, as they pursue an impossible dream with the stubborn persistence of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. The goal is pure, and eminently righteous; this justifies their struggle to a degree that touches us deeply.

And we sense, almost immediately, that the quest — and its outcome — will be heartbreaking. This is no Hollywood fairy tale.

Jimmie Fails (essentially playing himself) has long been obsessed by the ramshackle, elegant old Victorian home — complete with a distinctive, cone-shaped rooftop known as a “Witch’s Hat” — that his grandfather built long ago, in the heart of San Francisco’s Fillmore District. It was home to Jimmie’s extended family, during the vibrant post-WWII years, when the region was alive with joyously boisterous jazz clubs.

Then Jimmie’s father lost it somehow — details don’t matter — and the family fractured, pushed to various parts of the city’s outskirts. Jimmie remains haunted by the house’s hold on his soul. With best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) acting as reluctant lookout, Jimmie frequently sneaks onto the property, to touch up some paint trim, or attempt to control the overgrown garden.

Despite the fact that the current owners — white, of course — have repeatedly chased him away.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Late Night: Stay up for it!

Late Night (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and occasional sexual references

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.14.19

I’ve suffered through so many vulgar, trashy, profane and infantile comedies during the past several years, that it seemed like the entire genre had been hijacked by such junk.

Imperious late-night talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) would only
"make nice" in this manner, with lowly writer Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), if a publicity photo
were required. Otherwise, Katherine wouldn't waste a moment with such a staff peon...
Bless you, Mindy Kaling, for reminding us that witty, sophisticated humor still exists on the big screen.

Late Night is delightful. Kaling’s consistently amusing script is blessed with both sharp one-liners and shrewdly wry jabs at sexism, racism, ageism, tokenism and several other isms that don’t immediately leap to mind. The story also takes pointed pot shots at television and its cult of personality, while giving us the funniest behind-the-scenes writers’ room gang since we lost television’s much-loved 30 Rock.

And, unlike far too many lazy scripters these days, Kaling doesn’t focus solely on her story’s key characters; she also grants sidebar folks distinct personalities, and gives them little moments in which to shine. 

Manhattan-based Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is a pioneer in her field, with multiple Emmy Awards to prove it: She’s the only woman to host a long-running late-night talk show. Unfortunately, she hasn’t changed her approach after three decades, and her ratings are tanking in an age where audiences prefer social media to social discourse. Stuffy philosophers can’t compete with YouTube “celebrities” who make embarrassing videos with their pets.

Worse yet, the notoriously impatient Katherine suddenly is accused of hypocrisy: as a so-called progressive feminist whose writers’ room is staffed solely by men. White men. Mostly young white men.

Stung by the accuracy of this charge, she orders her executive producer — Denis O’Hare, as the long-suffering Brad — to take the first “diversity hire” who walks into the building. Due to a hilariously improbable set of circumstances, that turns out to be Molly Patel (Kaling), a former chemical plant efficiency expert from suburban Pennsylvania, who has dreamed of being a comedy writer.

And whose sudden presence in the writers’ room goes over like the proverbial lead balloon.

Men in Black International: Mindless fun

Men in Black International (2019) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for goofy sci-fi action and mild profanity

By Derrick Bang

It’s nice to know that the Men — and Women — in Black continue to protect Earth from the scum of the universe.

Confronted by sinister alien assassins with apparently unlimited powers, M (Tessa
Thompson) and H (Chris Hemsworth) do their best with a hilariously expanding roster
of firepower.
Nice to know, as well, that key elements of the franchise work just as well today, as they did in Lowell Cunningham’s 1990 comic book, the initial 1997-2012 film series, and the 1997-2001 animated TV series.

(Clearly, Earth has been under siege by a lotta scummy aliens.)

On the other hand, aspects of this new film’s Matt Holloway/Art Marcum script are vague and under-developed, and far too much time is devoted to snarky banter between stars Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, and not nearly enough time to the often artfully camouflaged ETs that populated the earlier films.

In a word, Holloway and Marcum are lazy. They too frequently rely on our familiarity with this franchise, as if that’s enough on which to float a rather simplistic plot. They get away with this, to a degree, because the premise is so amusing in its own right.

They also wisely reprise the gimmick that fueled the first film: the initiation of a novice MIB operative, which allows us to enjoy the agency’s demented environment through her astonished eyes. 

The rookie in question is Molly (Thompson), who as a small girl witnessed her parents having their memories wiped by the pen-like Neuralyzer, in order to forget the presence of MIB operatives searching for a rogue ET. Molly never forgot this fascinating incident, along with her own close encounter of the third kind. She grew up to become a dedicated scholar and resourceful sleuth, determined to identify and locate the agency (CIA? FBI?) to which those immaculately garbed individuals belong.

She ultimately succeeds — clever gal — much to the displeasure of Agent O (Emma Thompson), whose initial impulse is to use the Neuralyzer on this intruder. But O can’t help being impressed by Molly’s perspicacity and spunk. And besides, the agency could use a few more women. (More than a few, I should think.)

Molly is assigned a code name — M — and sent to London, where she encounters the legendary H (Hemsworth), who once famously saved Earth from a hyper-aggressive species known as The Hive, while armed solely with his wits and a De-Atomizer. Alas, H has become a preening, puffed-up parody of his former self: much too infatuated with his own reputation. He’s also prone to reckless behavior that skirts the edge of MIB’s most crucial rule: Never allow the public to witness any bizarre otherworldly activity or tech.

Shaft: Still the man!

Shaft (2019) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence, sexual content, drug content, brief nudity and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang

Sometimes you can go home again.

That's my boy! After a long day of sleuthing — with a violent encounter or two along the
way — John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson, left) proudly drags his son, John Jr.
(Jessie T. Usher) to one of his favorite, babe-laden watering holes.
The humor is more frequent and deliberate than was the case back in 1971, and this new action thriller is unquestionably set in our modern world. And yet director Tim Story, along with scripters Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow, frequently evoke the feisty spirit and atmosphere of the half-century-gone blaxploitation era.

They also honor this film’s predecessors, with sly dialogue references, acknowledgments of past events, and — most crucially — generous nods to Isaac Hayes’ jazz influence. And not just the iconic main theme, but also several familiar underscore cues.

To be sure, this updated Shaft — as a character — owes more to Samuel L. Jackson’s 2000 revival, than to Richard Roundtree’s initial portrayal. The best one-liners are tailored to Jackson’s smug, sly delivery, and most of the plot gets its momentum from his ultra-cool presence. 

But Jessie T. Usher’s third-generation John Shaft Jr. definitely pulls his weight; he has been granted a personality engaging enough to carry a future series on his own shoulders, should fate (and box-office returns) move in that direction.

He’s introduced as an infant, during a flashback prologue which depicts the near-fatal ambush that proves one violent event too many for the baby’s mother, Maya (Regina Hall). Frightened beyond endurance, but still clearly in love with Shaft II (Jackson), she nonetheless begs him to leave them, and keep his distance. Which he does, reluctantly, his presence a reminder to John Jr. solely via a series of hilariously inappropriate birthday presents, as the years pass.

Along the way, Maya does everything in her power to groom her son into a sensitive, clean-cut, well-mannered and responsible young man: as unlike his father as possible.

Flash-forward to the present day, where John Jr. is the proud recipient of an MIT diploma, and is newly ensconced as a rookie FBI data analyst in an office overseen by short-tempered Special Agent Vietti (Titus Welliver, utterly wasted in an underwritten, one-dimensional role). John Jr. has retained two best buds since childhood: Karim (Avan Jogia), who always had his back; and Sasha (Alexandra Shipp), now a doctor at a New York City hospital.

Friday, June 7, 2019

The Secret Life of Pets 2: A tail-wagger

The Secret Life of Pets 2 (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.7.19

No sophomore slump here.

Scripter Brian Lynch hasn’t lost his touch, when it comes to depicting the quirks, tics, foibles and eccentricities of dogs and cats … and their owners. He and his team of Illumination animators obviously observed hundreds of canines and felines, because the results are even funnier than its 2016 predecessor.

Once pooches Max and Duke accept the presence of two-legged Ian, everything — most
particularly mealtime ‚ becomes a shared activity.
And if the four-legged behavior is slightly (?) exaggerated for the sake of entertainment value, that simply enhances the fun.

Lynch and director Chris Renaud have returned for this second round of critter comedy, the latter assisted by longtime animating colleague Jonathan del Val. They’ve embraced the “divide and conquer” approach to storytelling, introducing and then cross-cutting between four primary plotlines. They’re all delightful and ripe with well-timed comedy, along with — and this is important — a measured dollop of heart and poignancy.

And a rather uncompromising message. It’s safe to assume that Lynch doesn’t think much of circuses that showcase wild animals.

Primary pooches Max (voiced by Patton Oswalt) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet) remain the best of buddies, having settled into a comfortable routine with owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). Walkies in the nearby park constantly remind Max how nice it is, not to be mauled by grabby, grody, grimy children.

Then, disaster: Katie meets and marries Chuck, and — to Max’s horror — the inevitable occurs shortly thereafter. Things do indeed get rather grim for a few years, but when toddler Ian’s first word turns out to be “Max,” everything changes in a heartbeat. All those other little children may be pesky nightmares, but not Max’s boy.

Duke, ever the go-along-to-get-along sort, knew it would all work out just fine.

But with acceptance comes a new problem. Max, now terrified of everything in the big, bad world that seems designed specifically to endanger Ian, becomes a nervous, anxious, fretful helicopter pooch with a tendency to scratch himself raw. Cue a trip to a behavioral veterinarian — the waiting room sequence is to die for — and Max returns home trapped in a cone of shame.

Dark Phoenix: Better than average

Dark Phoenix (2019) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for considerable sci-fi violence, disturbing images and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang

Comic book writers are notorious for adjusting, revising, reworking or even completely undoing the mythic back-stories and details of long-established characters. 

The spooky, otherworldly Vuk (Jessica Chastain, right) insists that she can help the
confused and increasingly overwhelmed Jean (Sophie Turner) control cosmic powers
that are literally off the chart. Naturally, Vuk's motivations are far less than pure...
Nothing is sacrosanct: not even death. If so-and-so perished nobly while saving the universe, s/he can be resurrected five years later via some previously undisclosed loophole. (If all else fails, rely on time travel.)

Putting up with this is difficult enough with comic books, but at least such contrived and manipulative nonsense can be “justified” during multiple issues over the course of many months.

It’s a lot more disconcerting when the newest X-Men entry — Dark Phoenix — makes absolute hash of the continuity established in previous films … or so it seems. Apoplectic fans sputtering “But … but … but!” are advised to pay closer attention to what went down in 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Which is how writer/direct Simon Kinberg gets away with the jaw-dropper that hits during this new film’s second act.

It also kinda/sorta justifies — albeit with an eyebrow lift — this film’s more-or-less replication of events already covered in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. Both are based on the iconic Chris Claremont/Dave Cockrum/John Byrne “Dark Phoenix Saga,” which played out in comic book form from 1976 to ’80 (back when only one X-Men comic book hit the stands each month, and boy, those were simpler times).

At its core, this is a common superhero plot device: What happens when a good hero turns bad?

Having proven themselves heroic after events in 2016’s (thoroughly unsatisfying) X-Men: Apocalypse, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his mutant students happily bask in the unaccustomed glow of public acclaim. Charles has a direct line to the U.S. president; children eagerly purchase dolls and other ephemera related to their favorite X-Man … or X-Woman, as the shape-shifting Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) tartly suggests should be the team’s actual designation, given how frequently the gals save the day.

That’s no mere idle comment. Female characters are front and center in this film, and it’s darn well about time.