Friday, January 31, 2020

The 2019 Oscar Shorts: Good things in small packages

The 2019 Oscar Shorts (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Not rated, and perhaps too intense for young viewers

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.31.20

A droll familial theme runs through last year’s Academy Award-nominated short subjects: Two of the animated entries are titled Daughter and Sister, while two live-action entries are titled Brotherhood and A Sister.

Can even a doting father survive an encounter with his daughter's
impossible hair?
Family also is key to Hair Love and The Neighbor’s Window, which makes one wonder if this is design, rather than coincidence.

And while numerous entries involve solemn or even grim topics — no doubt reflecting the increasingly agitated state of real world events — the collective package is by no means a slog through wrist-slashing despair, as was the case last year. For which we can be grateful.

The live-action entries kick off with Belgian director Delphine Girard’s suspenseful Une soeur (A Sister), which begins placidly, as a couple takes a late-night drive; Alie (Selma Alaoui) chats on her cell phone, discussing child-care details with her sister. The tableau seems innocuous … until Girard shifts to an emergency call center, where an operator (Veerle Baetens) takes a call, and the same conversation repeats.

And we suddenly realize that Alie isn’t chatting capriciously; she’s in real trouble — the driver (Guillaume Duhesme) is no friend — and trying desperately, cleverly, to get help. Tension builds as the sharp-witted operator, deducing the scenario, adjusts on the fly; the camera mostly holds on Baetens, who does a terrific job. The guy in the car grows increasingly suspicious as the “conversation” continues, until…

Saria, a brutal slice of recent history, comes from Bryan Buckley, who also was nominated in this category for 2012’s Asad, a coming-of-age fable about a Somali boy struggling to survive in his war-torn land.

Inspired by an actual 2017 event, Buckley’s new film focuses on Saria (Estefanía Tellez) and Ximena (Gabriela Ramírez), two orphaned sisters who — along with scores of other young girls — endure daily abuse and hardship as “residents” of Guatemala’s Virgen de La Asuncion Safe Home (a designation that is beyond ironic). The food is awful, the girls are worked mercilessly, and constantly demeaned by a guard (Imelda Castro) who can’t be bothered with names, and refers to them solely as “little bitches.”

Occasional gatherings with orphaned boys allow brief respites … but can young romance blossom amid such harsh surroundings?

The Rhythm Section: Out of tune

The Rhythm Section (2020) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated R, for violence, profanity, sexual content and drug use

By Derrick Bang

It’s painful to watch a filmmaker sabotage her own work.

Cinematographer-turned-director Reed Morano appears to have impressed folks with a trio of episodes for TV’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but her big-screen feature record is nothing to write home about; both 2015’s Meadowland and 2018’s I Think We’re Alone Now were dead on arrival.

Required to liaise with an "information broker" who could supply a key lead, Stephanie
(Blake Lively) arrives early at the public rendezvous point, hoping to gain an advantage.
I therefore cannot imagine why market-savvy producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson — the driving force behind the phenomenally long-running James Bond films — would select Morano to helm a thriller with the franchise potential of The Rhythm Section

Author Mark Burnell’s Stephanie Patrick series is four books strong (although he hasn’t written another since 2005). The character and premise, as introduced in 1999’s The Rhythm Section, borrow heavily from 1990’s La Femme Nikita and its subsequent film and television sequels; that said, star Blake Lively certainly makes Stephanie her own.

Burnell adapted his own novel as this film’s sole scripter, so the core elements remain faithful. Unfortunately, he did a sloppy job of condensing his 448-page novel into a 109-minute screenplay; by the time we reach this film’s conclusion, it’s impossible to determine who pulled the strings, or why the ultimate double-cross takes place.

The film certainly isn’t boring, but sheer momentum can’t conceal the increasingly clumsy and confusing narrative.

More critically, The Rhythm Section is marred by all manner of directorial tics and twitches: jangly hand-held cinematography; relentlessly tight close-ups — particularly of Lively — at the expense of locale-establishing shots, and other essential characters who often should be in the frame; poor use of Steve Mazzaro’s admittedly dull score; bad editing by Joan Sobel, particularly during what should have been a suspenseful car chase; and a relentless use of the same bloody flashbacks.

I swear, we see the soft-focus memory-image of Stephanie’s mother a dozen times, when twice would have been more than sufficient. We get it. We get it. We get it.

Such overkill is the hallmark of an inept director who trusts neither her cast nor the script.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Klaus: No coal in this stocking!

Klaus (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.24.20

The holidays are weeks behind us, but — thanks to the recently announced Academy Award nominations — a little slice of Christmas warrants renewed attention.

Having failed in every effort to make a go of his forlornly empty local Post Office,
Jesper shares his woes with tiny Margú, who listens attentively ... despite not
understanding a single word.
Klaus garnered very limited theatrical release for a heartbeat in early November, just long enough to qualify for its well-deserved Oscar nomination; availability since then has been solely via Netflix, which certainly picked the right project for its debut animated feature film. Co-directors Sergio Pablos and Carlos Martínez López have delivered a marvelous seasonal bonbon that’s equal parts charming, snarky, sentimental and — ultimately — powerfully heartwarming.

Several earlier films — many of them not very good — have contemplated the origin of Santa Claus. (1985’s Santa Claus: The Movie is a particularly notorious stinker.) The approach generally involves a good-hearted fellow who enthusiastically accepts this noble responsibility; some films also acknowledge references to the fourth-century Greek Christian bishop now known as Saint Nicholas.

Pablos — assisted by co-writers Jim Mahoney and Zach Lewis — has taken an entirely different tack.

Postmaster General Johansen (voiced with regal bearing by Sam McMurray) has devoted his life to the service; he’s therefore dismayed that his ne’er-do-well son, Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), has distinguished himself as the Postal Academy’s worst student. Angered beyond words, Dad banishes Jesper to the frozen island of Smeerensburg, miles above the Arctic Circle.

The lad is given one year to deliver at least 6,000 letters, or he’ll be stuck there forever.

The Gentlemen: A ferociously cheeky romp

The Gentlemen (2019) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for considerable profanity and violence

By Derrick Bang

Of late, director Guy Ritchie has focused his signature razzle-dazzle on mainstream adventure films such as Sherlock Holmes and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

(We’ll overlook last year’s ill-advised, live-action handling of Disney’s Aladdin.)

Mickey (Matthew McConaughey) and his wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery) are somewhat
surprised to be discussing their illegal business endeavors during a posh dinner party
laden with lords, ladies and political movers and shakers.
To be sure, they’ve been fun action romps … but they lacked the viciously snarky attitude of the distinctly British crime dark-dark-darkcomedies — notably 1998’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and 2000’s Snatch — that made his rep, early on.

(Star Matthew McConaughey defines the Ritchie touch as “language, punch, humor, sleight-of-hand, chin-up and double-dare-ya.” How right he is.)

The Gentlemen, I’m happy to report, is a welcome return to form … and then some. Aside from filling the screen with flamboyant, attitude-laden bad guys who delight in out-strutting each other, this film’s script — co-written by Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies — is filled with delectable twists and double-crosses. Every time we think we know what’s going down, Ritchie & Co. pull the rug out … not merely once, nor twice, but at least half a dozen times.

And while that might render the plot a confusing mess in lesser hands, have faith: Ritchie knows precisely what he’s doing. I couldn’t help applauding, when the credits finally rolled, at the sheer audacity of what had gone down for 113 exhilarating minutes.

The core plot: Ex-pat American entrepreneur Mickey Pearson (McConaughey) sits atop England’s most ambitiously massive illegal marijuana empire, which he has, um, cultivated for years. He’s the lion of London’s criminal underworld, and takes pains to ensure that everybody knows it.

But middle age has made Mickey long for a conventional life with his equally formidable, hot-bod wife, Rosalind (Michelle Dockery). He’s therefore looking to sell his empire, and the interested buyer is Matthew (Jeremy Strong), another American criminal kingpin looking to expand his territory.

Mickey looks and acts like the regal lion he has become. Matthew looks and sounds like an accountant. The disparity is intriguing.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Dolittle: Animal crackers

Dolittle (2020) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.17.20

Hollywood had a distressing habit, in the 1960s and early ’70s, of turning classic children’s books into musicals.

Having joined the unlikely crew of a ship heading for an island that never has been found,
young Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) is befriended by a frigophobic polar bear (named
Yoshi) and an uncharacteristically meek mountain gorilla (Chee-Chee).
This lamentable trend started with 1964’s Mary Poppins, which — by becoming that year’s third most popular film — lit the fuse on what followed. Subsequent entries, most with positively dire songs, included 1968’s Chitty Chitty Bang BangCharlie and the Chocolate Factory (as 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and — I positively shudder — 1973’s Tom Sawyer.

Not to be left out, animated examples included 1966’s Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, 1970’s The Phantom Tollbooth and 1973’s Charlotte’s Web.

Every one of which, without exception, destroyed the gentle tone so carefully wrought by the authors of the respective books. A few of these films may have been popular — most were just this side of awful — but many loyal young readers felt utterly betrayed, with ample justification. Hollywood didn’t “get” children’s literature any better than it understood the decade’s counter-culture revolution.

All of which brings us to 1967’s Doctor Dolittle, arguably one of the worst offenders. Rex Harrison may have been suitably refined and British in the title role — albeit much too old — but the film is a bloated, over-produced train wreck that pleased nobody, but nonetheless pulled nine Academy Award nominations (including, the mind doth boggle, Best Picture) … only because 20th Century Fox bought votes by serving fancy buffet dinners, cocktails and bottomless champagne at all pre-nomination screenings.

(The ploy succeeded, if only partially. The film won two Oscars — Special Effects and Song — the latter robbing Bacharach/David’s vastly superior “The Look of Love” from its rightful statuette.)

Harrison turned British author Hugh Lofting’s quiet bachelor veterinarian, who operates a clinic in the small village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, into a creaky song-and-dance man. Eddie Murphy made him a wise-cracking animal rights advocate in a 1998 comedy that borrowed little but the title and premise of Lofting’s books.

Robert Downey Jr., in turn, has turned Dolittle into a superhero.

Bad Boys for Life: An excessive final (?) rodeo

Bad Boys for Life (2020) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for strong bloody violence, relentless profanity, sexual candor and brief drug use

By Derrick Bang

Too long, too loud and too laughably ludicrous.

Too profane, as well. Along with deplorably violent.

In characteristic fashion, Marcus (Martin Lawrence, left) wants to reason with a highly
agitated suspect, whereas Mike (Will Smith) prefers the more direct,
confrontational approach.
Par for the course, in a film co-scripted by Joe Carnahan (who previously brought us NarcSmokin’ Aces and 2018’s remake of Death Wish, among others).

Carnahan got an assist from co-writers Peter Craig and Chris Bremner, and the result — the very late-arriving threequel to 1995’s Bad Boys — delivers precisely what this series’ fans expect. I’ve no doubt they’ll all go home satisfied.

That said, this bloated cop thriller would be a slog without the mirthful banter between Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, returning as forever bickering “bad boys” Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett. Except that they’re no longer “boys, as their much younger colleagues frequently point out. They’ve become the cop equivalent of creaky old-timers, and the story has fun with this dynamic.

Marcus, a newly minted grandfather, is more than ready to call it a day. Mike, lacking his partner’s family ties, stubbornly hangs onto his bad-ass rep … while clandestinely dying his signature goatee, in order to conceal the grey. He believes the rep is all he has, despite Marcus’ insistence to the contrary.

Bad Boys for Life — something of a surprise, given the space between it and 2003’s Bad Boys II — is fueled by a classic “one last rodeo” plot. It’s laden with nonstop mayhem: gun battles; sniper assassinations; landscape-pummeling vehicular pursuits in cars, motorcycles, sidecars and helicopters; and several gratuitously gory deaths. Scores of assault gun-wielding thugs are dispatched bloodily, like swatted flies.

It’s all quite over the top; at a self-indulgent 123 minutes, this film definitely wears out its welcome. It also stretches credibility way past the breaking point, starting when Mike unexpectedly takes four to the chest from a semi-automatic assault weapon. And survives.


Catching one bullet would be sufficient for story purposes; four is an early indication of the absurd excess favored by Moroccan-born co-directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (who built their résumé with the Belgian crime dramas ImageBlack and Gangsta). 

And no; that’s not really a spoiler, since this intended assassination takes place scant minutes into the film. 

Friday, January 10, 2020

1917: Absolutely amazing!

1917 (2019) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated R, for considerable war violence, dramatic intensity and profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.10.20




Having made it through the harrowing horrors of No Man's Land, Lance Cpl. Schofield
(George MacKay, left) and Lance Cpl. Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) marvel at the
artillery weapons and shells that have been abandoned on the German side of the front.
Director/co-writer Sam Mendes’ war drama isn’t merely a crackling suspenser that’ll keep you at the edge of your seat — hand at mouth — for every single moment of its 119-minute run.

It’s also one of the most visually audacious films ever made: a degree of stunning cinematic technical advancement on par with the dinosaurs that knocked our socks off, back in 1993’s Jurassic Park.

Everything you’ve heard about Mendes’ film is true; it’s that awesome.

The simple, pressure-cooker plot begins on April 6, 1917, deep within the Allied trenches in Northern France. The “Great War” has been raging since late July 1914, and will continue until November 1918; American forces have yet to arrive in Western Europe (although the United States officially declared war on Germany on this very day).

German forces have unexpectedly pulled back overnight, encouraging the Allies to mount an offensive and follow. But aerial photos have revealed this to be a ruse; the Germans have feigned this retreat to the Hindenburg Line, in order to ambush the pursuing Devonshire Regiment’s 1,600-man 2nd Battalion. 

Processing this from miles away, the 8th Battalion’s Gen. Erinmore (Colin Firth, in a brief appearance) realizes the result will be a slaughter. Phone lines are down; the only hope is to send messengers — on foot — through No Man’s Land and past the original German front, in order to alert the 2nd Battalion’s commanding officer, and call off the Allied attack … which is scheduled for the very next morning.

The mission falls to two young soldiers: Lance Cpl. Schofield (George MacKay, well remembered as the beleaguered eldest son in 2016’s Captain Fantastic) and Lance Cpl. Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, a frequent face on HBO’s Game of Thrones). They have less than 24 hours to cover many dangerous miles.

Blake has an additional incentive: His older brother Joseph is a member of the 2nd Battalion.

Just Mercy: A real-world horror story

Just Mercy (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and racial epithets

By Derrick Bang

Effective advocacy cinema should enlighten, inspire or outrage.

And, in some cases, prompt grief.

Summoned back to court to hear the results of an appeal for a new trial by defense
attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan, left), he and wrongly incarcerated
Death Row inmate Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) await the judge's announcement.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy manages all of the above, and then some. This thoroughly absorbing — and progressively infuriating — drama is an impressively faithful depiction of the jaw-dropping ordeal endured by Walter McMillian, who in June 1987 was arrested for a murder he couldn’t possibly have committed, sentenced to death during a patently absurd trial, and subsequently spent six years on Death Row.

In late 1988, the case came to the attention of freshly minted Harvard lawyer Bryan Stevenson, newly arrived in Alabama to partner with Eva Ansley, with whom he’d co-found the Equal Justice Initiative. (Since 1994, the Republican-controlled Alabama has been the only state that refuses to provide legal assistance to death row prisoners.)

Stevenson’s growing involvement in McMillian’s nightmare fuels the drama in Cretton’s film; he co-wrote the script with Andrew Lanham, based on Stevenson’s 2014 memoir of the same title. The result is must-see cinema, thanks also to powerhouse performances from Michael B. Jordan (Stevenson) and Jamie Foxx (McMillian), along with equally solid work from a roster of shrewdly cast supporting players.

At its core, this saga is about repugnant racism, corruption and the hideous abuse of power by smugly arrogant white men who know they can get away with anything. The villains in this drama are headed by Michael Harding’s chilling portrayal of Sheriff Tom Tate, who — as the film opens — has been under mounting pressure to find the person who shot and killed 18-year-old dry-cleaning clerk Ronda Morrison (white, of course) on November 1, 1986.

For reasons this film never makes clear — partly because there didn’t seem to bea reason — seven months later Tate arrests McMillian, a pulpwood worker shown felling trees in a brief sequence prior to the fateful traffic stop. (The poetic image of blue sky shimmering through gently wafting pine needles, as McMillian glances reverently heavenward, will prove important later.) Tate’s choice seems governed solely by his belief that McMillian looks like a black guy who’d gun down a helpless white woman.

This arrest, surrounded by white cops with rifles and pistols drawn, gives Harding his first flat-out scary moment. (Several others will follow, the actor often radiating lethal menace without saying a word.)

Friday, January 3, 2020

Bombshell: Provocatively outFoxed

Bombshell (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and (often unpleasant) sexual candor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.3.20

It’s hard to be completely satisfied, when a disgraced sexual predator departs his high-profile corporate job with an eight-figure severance package.

Despite her ongoing spat with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump having
become very public, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is assured by
boss Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) that he still has her back.
Director Jay Roach’s new film, a scorching slice of recent history, depicts Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes’ fall from grace, following the brave revolt of numerous female employees who finally said enough is too much.

The frequently snarky script comes from Charles Randolph, who adopts an approach similar to that he took with his Academy Award-winning screenplay for 2015’s The Big Short. Thus, these events unfold against ongoing break-the-fourth-wall narration from Charlize Theron’s Megyn Kelly, who frequently addresses us viewers directly, in order to offer essential back-story. The resulting tone shifts wildly from dark humor to painful intimacy; we chuckle ruefully one moment, recoil in aghast consternation the next.

Stars Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie are backed by equally compelling performances from a wealth of supporting players, some seen only fleetingly but no less memorably (as with Malcolm McDowell’s fleeting appearance as Rupert Murdoch). Theron and Kidman play real-world Fox News anchors Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson; Robbie’s Kayla Pospisil is a composite character drawn from Ailes’ lesser-profile victims.

No surprise, then — since Pospisil is constructed for maximum dramatic impact — that Robbie has both of the film’s standout acting moments.

But they come later. Our introductory crash course in Fox News-style “journalism” comes from Kelly, when she trots us through the bullpen and newsroom, her observations peppered with deliciously acerbic remarks. Theron’s wholly immersive transformation is frankly startling; makeup designer Kazu Hiro and costume designer Colleen Atwood — both Oscar winners — have essentially turned their star into Kelly. Theron completes the illusion by flawlessly replicating Kelly’s walk, stance and manner of speech.

The first act is dominated by Kelly’s unexpected feud with then-Republican presidential contender Donald Trump, in the summer of 2015: a headline-generated spat that climaxed with the latter’s tasteless accusation that the Fox News host had “blood coming out of her wherever” during the early August Republican candidates’ debate. Conscious of not wanting to “become the story,” Kelly absents herself for a bit, with Ailes’ support.

John Lithgow, barely recognized beneath the makeup and padding required to convey Ailes’ massive weight, is almost fatherly and sympathetic here … but that’s part of the man’s two-faced abuse of power. Given that Lithgow is an inherently sympathetic actor, it’s easy to think of Ailes benevolently, in these early scenes.