Friday, August 30, 2019

The Fanatic: Nothing to admire

The Fanatic (2019) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for violence, gore and profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.30.19

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Seeing John Travolta starring in a tawdry little flick such as The Fanatic is disheartening enough; further noting gifted cinematographer Conrad W. Hall’s involvement qualifies as an out-of-body gob-smack.

Moose (John Travolta, left) cannot understand why his proximity to the house belonging
to his favorite movie star — Devon Sawa, as Hunter Dunbar — is cause for such a
nasty outburst. All he wants is an autograph...
Fred Durst’s dreary thriller is the sort of ham-fisted junk that once got sold directly to late-night cable. These days, thanks to the rise of indie cinema and vanity production companies with more cash than common sense, such films sometimes get unwarranted movie theater play … as is the case here.

The recent explosion of pre-title production company logos has become a joke, and this lurid fiasco is no exception. Seriously, would you expect anything worthwhile from an effort “presented” collaboratively by MFC, VMI, Wonderful Media, Quiver Distribution and — my favorite — Pretzel Fang?

It has been said that nobody sets out to make a bad movie; things just go wrong along the way. After enduring this one, I’m not so sure. It’s clearly a vanity project for Durst, best known as the face of the rap/rock band Limp Bizkit; he wrote the story, co-scripted (along with Dave Bekerman) and occupied the director’s chair. It’s not his first rodeo; he previously directed a string of music videos and two big-screen features that didn’t make much noise (2007’s The Education of Charlie Banks and 2008 The Longshots).

I’m sure he’s a nice guy, and — in fairness — he has a confident sense of mood and atmosphere (although I suspect Hall deserves the credit for most of that).

But this is his first story/script credit, and let it be said: The man cannot write. He has no feeling for the way people talk to each other; no concept of plot logic; no understanding of the need for a consistent narrative tone; no grasp of the means to develop and maintain suspense. The Fanatic is a clumsy mess, which makes it a terrific model for teachers of film studies classes, on how not to make a movie.

According to pre-release hype, the premise is based on an actual incident from Durst’s music career, when he had to deal with an overly aggressive fan who crossed the line of acceptable behavior. If so, that makes this story’s jaw-droppingly weird and deplorably brutal climax even harder to understand. If it’s wish fulfillment, Durst’s time would be better spent in therapy.

On top of which, we’ve been here many times before. Lauren Bacall was targeted by an obsessively unhinged Michael Biehn, in 1981’s The Fan; all-star baseball player Wesley Snipes ran afoul of the equally deranged Robert De Niro, in 1996’s The Fan. (Not much originality in titles, eh?)

And didn’t Stephen King make the ultimate statement with Misery, which brought Kathy Bates a well-deserved Academy Award for her 1990 portrayal of poor James Caan’s “Number One Fan”?

The Bacall flick is nothing to write home about, but Durst managed to top its deficiencies. No small feat.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Peanut Butter Falcon: Utterly captivating

The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, brief violence and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.23.19

Precious few films deserve to be mentioned alongside Mark Twain’s richly evocative, character-driven prose.

This is one of them.

Determined to take advantage of Rule No. 1 — "Party!" — Zak (Zack Gottsagen, left) and
Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) dip rather too enthusiastically into a jug of moonshine bestowed by
an obliging store owner.
The comparison runs deeper than tone and atmosphere. Writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz deliberately evoke the spirit of Samuel Langhorne Clemens as their endearing, deeply heartwarming tale proceeds. It’s easy to imagine Twain having concocted just such an intimate,  transformational fable, had he settled in the swampy, reed-filled inlets and quiet sandy beaches of North Carolina.

Nilson and Schwartz’s mythical saga has a similar sense of otherworldly timelessness, ingeniously leavened with a dollop of contemporary social consciousness. The script — and precisely crafted dialog — never put a foot wrong.

The result is utterly charming.

Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down Syndrome, chafes in a nursing home for senior citizens in the final stages of life: the only facility willing to accept him, after being abandoned by his original family. Despite an inherent optimism and outward cheerfulness, he’s restless and miserable in an environment clearly not suited to his needs.

This doesn’t go unnoticed by Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), an empathetic volunteer who has tried to be a friend; at the very least, she’s closer to his age than anybody else. Zak appreciates the effort, and promises that she’ll be one of the privileged few invited to his next birthday party.

Zak’s only joy comes from endlessly re-watching an old promotional videotape starring his longtime hero: a professional wrestler dubbed the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). More than anything else, Zak dreams of traveling to Florida, in order to enroll at his idol’s wrestling school.

Elsewhere, personal tragedy has left Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) unable to cope with the world. At the loosest of ends, sleeping rough and incapable (unwilling?) to hold a steady job, he survives solely by stealing the caged catches of other crab fishermen. But that’s a dangerous gamble, when everybody similarly scrambles to stay alive; Tyler runs afoul of rival fishermen Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Southern rapper Yelawolf), who threaten to kill him.

Zak, no stranger to escape attempts, finally succeeds one night with some assistance from his roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern, enjoying a late-career Renaissance playing feisty old coots). Alas, the effort leaves him clad solely in briefs. Stumbling barefoot and shirtless in the dark, he finally hides beneath the tarp in a dockside skiff … which happens to belong to Tyler, who has just compounded his problems with a stupid and spiteful act.

Forced to flee by boat into the reedy inlets, with Duncan and Ratboy in vengeful pursuit, Tyler is well away before he discovers the stowaway.

Angel Has Fallen: A devilishly good time

Angel Has Fallen (2019) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity and violence

By Derrick Bang

The third time’s definitely the charm, for this series.

Were it not for A-level casts toplined by Gerard Butler’s indestructible Mike Banning, 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen and 2016’s London Has Fallen would have vanished from the face of the planet, due to their outrageously stupid scripts, unforgivably cowardly characters, and offensively jingoistic political undertone.

On the run, and with almost nobody to trust, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) chances a
phone call to his wife, knowing full well that the FBI has tapped his home phone.
Both typified the exploitative action swill that Cinemax programmed in late-night time slots, back in the 1980s.

Given that series creators Katrin Benedikt and Creighton Rothenberger have been on board throughout, this third entry was approached with more than a little skepticism. But I’m happy to report that Angel Has Fallen is vastly superior to its predecessors; indeed, you’d never believe it came from any of the same folks. Credit likely belongs to new co-scripters Matt Cook and Robert Mark Kamen, the latter a seasoned veteran who has written and co-written crowd-pleasing hits as diverse as The Karate KidThe Fifth Element and the Transporter series.

In short, Kamen knows how to concoct and pace an effective thriller. More to the point, his stories always have heart, and this new Fallenentry is no different; it includes a level of emotional gravitas that was completely absent in the first two films, whose characters had the depth of tissue paper.

On top of which, the core plot is an always reliable chestnut invariably tapped during the third or fourth season of successful television investigative dramas: the ol’ “We’ve all trusted this guy for years, but now — solely because of circumstantial evidence — we’re gonna believe that he’s been an evil bastard all along.”

Contrived, yes. But undeniably effective, because it puts our hero in the situation beloved by Alfred Hitchcock: on the run from good guys and bad guys.

In fairness, said circumstantial evidence is quite formidable. While keeping President Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) company during a restful fishing trip in the middle of a freezing-cold lake, Banning and his Secret Service team are attacked by a phalanx of explosive drones. Thanks to quick thinking, Banning saves Trumbull’s life, but only barely; the president remains hospitalized, in a coma. Recovering is uncertain.

Banning, in turn, awakens to find himself handcuffed to a hospital bed. As he stares in disbelief, FBI Special Agent Thompson (Jada Pinkett Smith) coldly informs him that he’s the lone survivor, the entire rest of the Secret Service team having been wiped out. Far more damning, the tech-laden van from which the drones were fired has been found, and it’s laden with Banning’s DNA. The cherry on top: $20 million in a clandestine account under his name, with the funds traced back to — we pause, for emphasis — the Russians.

(How’s that for election interference?)

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Ready or Not: Gleeful gore to come

Ready or Not (2019) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for violence, gore, drug use, relentless profanity and buckets o' blood

By Derrick Bang

Fans of dark-dark-dark humor — who can work up a macabre chuckle amidst gore, gouts of blood and the occasional decapitation — are guaranteed to have a great time with this little chiller.

Concealed — and as yet undetected — behind a bed, Grace (Samara Weaving) has just
discovered the lethal details of the "game" her new husband Alex (Mark O'Brien)
insisted that she join.
The timid and squeamish — which is to say, everybody else — are advised to steer veryclear.

Ready or Not comes from the gleefully demented minds of a filmmaking trio collectively known as Radio Silence: co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet, and executive producer Chad Villella. Their previous big-screen efforts haven’t made much noise — V/H/SDevil’s Due and Southbound are best left forgotten — but this one likely will elevate their cred.

As well it should. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillet have made the most of a sharply honed script by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy, which develops a simple premise into an exciting, 95-minute thrill ride. The execution may be gruesome, but there’s no denying the edge-of-the-seat suspense.

That “simple premise” will look familiar to those with fond memories of 2017’s Get Out, because the opening act is pretty much identical, albeit with a gender reversal: young adult brings lover home to “meet the folks,” whereupon the unsuspecting newcomer discovers all manner of dangerous weirdness within the massive mansion walls.

Mind you, Ready or Not doesn’t have anywhere near the ingenious social subtext that brought Get Out’s Jordan Peele a well-deserved Academy Award for original screenplay … unless, perhaps, Busick and Murphy intend a satiric shot at the notion that the obscenely wealthy really arehopelessly out of touch. But that’s probably giving them too much credit. 

At best, Ready or Not is a guilty pleasure, and an unapologetic tip of the hat to the cheerfully grotesque excesses of France’s infamous Grand Guignol stage productions, with a literary nod toward Marlowe and Goethe.

We open on a wedding day, with humble Grace (Samara Weaving) brought by fiancé Alex (Mark O’Brien) to the immense estate owned by the parents from whom he has been estranged for many years. We initially wonder why he’d bother, given that so many of the arriving clan members seem related to the Addams Family, but — as Busick and Murphy carefully establish — everything happens for a reason.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Blinded by the Light: Incandescent!

Blinded by the Light (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and vulgar racism

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.16.19

Music doesn't merely hath charms to soothe the savage breast; it can transform lives.

Writer/director Gurinder Chadha has been absent from our screens for far too long, after enchanting filmgoers with Bend It Like Beckham and Bride & Prejudice, back in the early 2000s. She has remained busy, but her intervening projects haven’t resonated nearly as much (at least, not here in the States).

Determined to share his newly discovered affection for Bruce Springsteen's inspirational
lyrics, Javed (Viveik Kalra) drags a surprised — but definitely pleased — Eliza
(Nell Williams) into a spontaneous dance.
She’s back with a vengeance, thanks to Blinded by the Light.

Pop/rock music fans have enjoyed an embarrassment of riches, of late; we’ve viewed the world — and enjoyed tuneful biographies — according to Queen (Bohemian Rhapsody), Elton John (Rocket Man) and The Beatles (Yesterday). Now Chadha — with a scripting assist from Paul Mayeda Berges and Sarfraz Manzoor — has put Bruce Springsteen’s poetic, working-man angst to similar magical use, with “Blinded by the Light.”

The result is charming, exhilarating and illuminating by turns, along with a perceptive nod toward current real-world events: in every respect, one of the summer film season’s sweetest surprises. That it’s based on actual events — Manzoor’s absorbing 2008 memoir, Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock ’n’ Roll — is the icing on the cake.

The setting is Luton, England, in 1987: the height of Margaret Thatcher’s reign, with millions of people out of work, many of whom — believing “foreigners” have taken their jobs — have joined increasingly aggressive “Make England White Again” marches. (Sound familiar?)

Javed (Viveik Kalra), a teen of Pakistani descent, has lived in Luton since his father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) moved the family to England years ago. Malik is bluntly imperious in his traditional views; he’s therefore a stern roadblock to any semblance of Westernized behavior that might tempt Javed and his sister, Shazia (Nikita Mehta). 

Which is a problem, because Javed is forced to conceal his artistic tendencies; he has recorded his thoughts and dreams in daily journals since childhood, and also composes poetry. Some of the latter find an outlet as lyrics for songs written and performed by a garage band headed by longtime best friend and neighbor Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman).

Matt also has been a staunch defender against the racial taunts — and worse — abusively hurled in Javed’s direction.

The film opens just as Javed begins his first year at the local sixth-form college, where he’s determined to pass his A-levels in order to qualify for university: somewhere (anywhere!) other than Luton. His father tolerates this only with the expectation that Javed studies medicine, law, business or something else that guarantees a high-income job.

Meanwhile, entering a new school is fraught with the usual peril, amplified because Javed a) looks foreign; and b) is slight of build and easily intimidated.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette (And can you stay there?)

Where'd You Go Bernadette (2019) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for profanity and fleeting drug content

By Derrick Bang

Cate Blanchett’s starring performance in this film is breathtaking: a constantly mesmerizing display of nuance and manic emotional swings, which rise to mischievous playfulness and fall to shattered despair, frequently fueled by a stream-of-consciousness volley of half-finished thoughts and hopes.

Bernadette (Cate Blanchett, left) feigns delight when her daughter Bee (Emma Nelson)
gets accepted to the college-prep boarding school Choate ... but actually is dismayed that
her only child — and best friend — is about to move all the way to Connecticut.
Spending two hours with her character, however, is torture on par with root canal surgery.

Ten minute into this sorta-kinda dramedy, we’re ready to strangle her. Ten more minutes, and we’re eyeing the exits.

Television screenwriter-turned-novelist Maria Semple’s 2012 best-seller is an epistolary novel told mostly via emails, memos, letters and other documents, with occasional first-person commentary by 15-year-old Bee, as she attempts to unravel the “mystery” of her mother. Given that format, our sense of Bernadette develops second-hand, at something of a remove; her bitchy, scattered, nasty, socially unacceptable and self-destructive antics are filtered through the lens of a loving daughter.

Director/co-scripter Richard Linklater, in great contrast, thrusts Bernadette into our faces in real time. Watching her interact with other people — doing and saying the things that took place off-camera (so to speak) in the book — will tax the patience of even Blanchett’s most devoted fans.

The point of the story is that there’s a reason for Bernadette’s narcissistic and frankly intolerable behavior; that’s the “enigma” to be sussed by anybody masochistic enough to endure these personality flaws en route to the film’s (admittedly more satisfying) third act. But boy, getting there is a struggle.

Bernadette Fox is a boldly inventive architect whose imaginative creations once garnered a MacArthur Genius Grant. But that was 20 years ago, before she fled Los Angeles for a reclusive life in Seattle, where she and husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) settled in the shambling wreck of Straight Gate, a “house” that looks like it began life as a sanatorium. Any thoughts of renovating the place apparently vanished when only child Bee (Emma Nelson) arrived, and became the sole focus of Bernadette’s more lucid moments.

Two decades on, the house is an unkempt monstrosity, its haphazard artistic touches overwhelmed by a leaking roof, peeling wallpaper, chunks of fallen plaster and blackberry runners growing up through the carpet. Bee finds this magical, thanks to the forbearance of a worshipful teenage daughter who delights in adult eccentricity. 

But the notion that Elgie puts up with it — has put up with it for years — is beyond comprehension. We’re led to believe that his work as a brilliant Microsoft innovator has made him an often preoccupied, frequently absent husband and father … but still.

Friday, August 9, 2019

The Art of Racing in the Rain: Doggone good

The Art of Racing in the Rain (2019) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.9.19

Coincidence can be cruel.

Last week’s preview screening of this film came just two days after Constant Companion and I bid a heartbroken farewell to our canine friend of 15 years. To say we therefore were a vulnerable target for a dog-oriented melodrama would be the wildest of understatements.

Although Enzo (the shaggy one) loves to join Denny (Milo Ventimiglia) in any activity,
nothing compares to the rush of sitting shotgun when they test-drive a car on their
favorite racetrack.
Fortunately, director Simon Curtis takes a sensibly restrained approach to this big-screen adaptation of Garth Stein’s celebrated 2008 novel, which obediently sat on the New York Times best seller list for three-plus years. (That said, while The Art of Racing in the Rain is a clever title for a book, it’s rather a mouthful for a movie: hard to remember, and giving no narrative clues for viewers unfamiliar with Stein’s work.)

In a year laden with sentimental pooch pictures — we’ve already sniffled through A Dog’s Way Home and A Dog’s Journey — this one’s a bit different. Although we’re once again privy to a canine protagonist’s inner thoughts, Kevin Costner’s voicing of this golden retriever (Enzo) is far more thoughtful and philosophical, and less inclined toward humor.

Enzo carefully studies everything: his master and other people, events on television and out in the big, wide world. In other words, Enzo learns; he also has tremendous insight into the human condition. He’s “handicapped” only because his doggy tongue and palate weren’t designed for speech … and he lacks opposable thumbs.

Costner’s dry, matter-of-fact acknowledgment of these two shortcomings, early on, sets the tone for his superlative voice performance. 

Curtis, cinematographer Ross Emery and animal trainer/coordinator Teresa Ann Miller also must be acknowledged for the patience they displayed, in order to get such marvelously contemplative expressions and postures from their four-legged stars: primarily 2-year-old Parker and 8-year-old Butler, playing Enzo during different chapters of this saga.

“The hardest thing to train a dog to do is sit still,” Miller acknowledges, in the press notes. They succeeded brilliantly; Enzo has a regal, dignified presence that makes him seem infinitely wise. This bearing is complemented perfectly by Costner’s voiceovers.

The Kitchen: Not much cooking

The Kitchen (2019) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for considerable profanity and bloody violence

By Derrick Bang

Strong performances can’t compensate for a weak script, no matter how much this film hopes you’ll think otherwise.

Are you talkin' to us? Claire (Elisabeth Moss, left), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish, center) and
Kathy (Melissa McCarth) find little to admire in the so-called men left to run the
Irish Mob in Hell's Kitchen.
Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss act up a storm, and their characters are solid; they easily hold our attention (although it’s probably a stretch to suggest that we ever sympathize with them). But too many key supporting characters are woefully underdeveloped, even when it’s crucial to understand them better.

Others have ethics that float like leaves on a stiff breeze. The sudden shifts can induce viewer whiplash.

Blame easily is assigned to first-time director Andrea Berloff, who also supplied a clumsy screenplay based on the eight-part 2015 comic book series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle. In her haste to mount a female-oriented crime thriller appropriately timed to the #MeToo movement, Berloff has forgotten the first rule of cinema: It’s always the story, stupid.

The setting is 1978 New York City, in the 20 blocks of pawn shops, porn palaces and dive bars squatting between Eighth Avenue and the Hudson River: aptly known as Hell’s Kitchen, and ruled by the Irish Mafia. The story hits the ground running, as gangsters Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James), Kevin (James Badge Dale) and Rob (Jeremy Bobb) stage a hold-up, only to be interrupted by police and the FBI.

The result: three years in prison.

They leave families behind. Jimmy’s wife, Kathy (McCarthy), wonders how she’ll feed their two adolescent children. Kevin’s wife, Ruby (Haddish), is left in the company of her hateful mother-in-law, Helen (Margo Martindale), a spiteful-tongued shrew and neighborhood matriarch, who calls the shots behind the scenes. Rob’s battered wife, Claire (Moss), is grateful for his absence.

The Mob falls under the half-assed rule of Little Jackie (Myk Watford), whose promise to take care of the three women — because “we’re family” — proves woefully insufficient. Taking note of the general neighborhood dissatisfaction with Little Jackie, who demands protection money without offering protecting, Kathy and her friends decide to take matters into their own hands.

They’re initially nervous and unschooled in the ways of violence, but they learn quickly.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Hobbs & Shaw: Dumb & dumber

Hobbs & Shaw (2019) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, for relentless cartoon violence and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.2.19

Too loud, too preposterous, and too bloody long.

This isn’t a movie; it’s a pinball machine, with two-legged combatants randomly rolling around an obstacle-laden playing field, savagely bumping into each other for no particular reason.

With the fate of the entire planet resting on their shoulders, Shaw (Jason Statham, driving)
and Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) get ready for a rather improbable lassoing stunt.
The so-called director of this mess, David Leitch, graduated from stuntman to stunt coordinator over the course of two decades; succumbing to delusions of grandeur, he turned director for Atomic BlondeDeadpool 2 and this sorta-kinda entry in the Fast and Furious franchise.

All three films have the same thing in common: They’re soulless, live-action cartoons operating under the delusion that relentless mayhem compensates for a complete lack of plot and characterization.

It doesn’t.

Bravura action scenes work best when they’re an explosive surprise amid a story that has built tension, drama and emotional gravitas. (Consider the Matt Damon Bourne films as excellent examples.)

Leitch’s approach is akin to a diet of nothing but ice cream. No matter how much we enjoy such dessert as the delicious conclusion to a savory meal, being force-fed nothing but ice cream for 135 butt-numbing minutes — the length of this cinematic travesty — isn’t merely tedious; it becomes acutely painful.

In fairness, Leitch can’t take the sole blame; this misbegotten script comes from Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce, who deserve some sort of chutzpah award for having been paid for this utter absence of anything resembling an actual story. The 135-minute result actually is rather impressive, for its vacuousness.

Dwayne Johnson’s whup-ass and Jason Statham’s martial-arts beatdowns have been lots of fun in the past, and — goodness knows — both have starred in their share of brain-dead clunkers (Skyscraper and The Meg, respectively, in the recent past). In many cases, the two action stars have skated by via droll ’tude and sheer force of incandescent personality; they’re usually a lot of fun to watch.

That said, I suspect Hobbs & Shaw will task the patience of even their most ardent fans.