Friday, February 28, 2020

The Invisible Man: Nothing to see here

The Invisible Man (2020) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity and strong bloody violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.28.20

It starts so well.

Writer/director Leigh Whannell’s re-boot of H.G. Wells’ 1897 classic has a terrific first act, beginning with a chilling, wordless prologue as Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) stealthily slips out of bed late one night. Her wary, frightened eyes never leave the sleeping man formerly beside her; her skittish movements are those of a trapped animal attempting a final shot at survival.

What you can't see ... could hurt you a lot. Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) attempts to calm
herself with a soothing hot shower, little realizing that she isn't alone.
Whannell stages this sequence brilliantly, and Moss plays it with impressive conviction. We immediately know that she’s a long-abused, likely battered woman; we instinctively root for her to escape from this massive, heavily masculine estate of long hallways and electronically controlled doors (ominously sterile production design by Alex Holmes). Cecilia’s cautious departure seems to take forever, and we nearly scream when she pauses long enough to free their dog.

They make it. Barely.

Time passes. Still terrified, she shelters inside the comfortable suburban home of childhood friend James (Aldis Hodge), a San Francisco police detective and single parent to teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). They’re kind and patient, even when Cecilia remains too terrified to step outside long enough to get the mail.

Then, a most unexpected release. Cecilia’s sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) arrives with phenomenal news: Cecilia’s abusive ex, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), has killed himself. The nightmare is over.

Or is it?

Given the title of this film, it’s hardly revelatory to mention that Cecilia’s relief is short-lived. Thanks to preternatural senses honed during years of trying to anticipate Adrian’s hair-trigger explosions of temper and violence, Cecilia begins to feel uncomfortable in James and Sydney’s home. Empty rooms seem … wrong somehow. (Whannell and cinematographer Stefan Duscio have great fun with agonizingly slow pans of … absolutely nothing at all.)

The atmosphere remains unsettling and creepy, the suspense almost unbearable. And then Cecilia recalls (and we learn) that Adrian was a brilliant inventor and optics pioneer, and her paranoia rises to a shrieking point. If anybody could “haunt” a person by being invisible, Adrian would be the one; maybe he isn’t dead.

Or maybe she’s just losing her mind.

Friday, February 21, 2020

The Call of the Wild: Bad dog!

The Call of the Wild (2020) • View trailer 
Two stars. PG, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.21.20

This certainly isn’t Jack London’s Call of the Wild.

To a certain degree, that’s good; among other things, the novel’s handling of Native Americans is a lamentable reflection of its 1903 origins.

As they spend more time in the wilderness of the Canadian Yukon, John Thornton
(Harrison Ford) senses that his canine friend Buck is responding to something
instinctively more powerful than his attachment to mankind.
But prudent adjustment on behalf of cultural sensitivity does not justify the insufferable Disney-fication of this otherwise classic saga. Although Harrison Ford does his best — as both narrator and human star — the story’s nobility has been lost in scripter Michael Green’s clumsy, tone-deaf and wildly uneven adaptation.

On top of which, the decision to rely on CGI fabrications — as opposed to actual dogs — is a serious miscalculation. That may fly with the wild animals in The Lion King and The Jungle Book; most of us aren’t intimately familiar with how lions, tigers, elephants and the like actually move. But we all know how dogs think, behave, walk, run and jump … and this film’s faux canines frequently look wrong, wrong, wrong.

No surprise, given that visual effects supervisors Ryan Stafford and Erik Nash “built” their canine star — Buck — from the athletic movements of a former Cirque du Soleil performer pretending to be a dog.

Are we to imagine that Hollywood lacks real dogs that could have served as models for London’s powerful, 140-pound St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix?


OK, fine; the SFX grants Buck more insight, sensitivity and expressive personality than we’d likely get from an actual dog actor (although seasoned canine trainers likely would argue that point). But this anthropomorphization constantly feels false and phony; it was fine for the wholly animated pooches in Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians, but here it’s merely distracting.

Green’s script follows most of the significant plot beats in London’s novel, so we initially meet Buck as the pampered, wholly out of control pet in the genteel, staff-laden household of wealthy Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford). This prolog marks an inauspicious beginning by director Chris Sanders, who unwisely channels the dreadful 1960s Disney comedies that involved animals — often dogs — running amok and destroying furniture, spilling the contents of every container in sight, and generally making as huge a mess as possible … supposedly because this was the height of hilarity.

It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon — Clay play

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2019) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated G, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang

You have to love credits which promise that “No sheep were probed during the making of this film.”

Impish Shaun the Sheep has come quite far, since debuting as a supporting character in Wallace and Gromit’s Academy Award-winning 1995 short, A Close Shave. The rascally ruminant subsequently starred in 150 seven-minute claymation cartoons from 2007 through ’15, every one a masterpiece of stop-motion delight.

Shaun, right, watches hopefully as Lu-La attempt to start the flying saucer ... but, as a
holographic display warns, nothing will happen without an essential key-type gizmo,
which was lost shortly after landing.
The hilarious visuals notwithstanding, much of Shaun’s international appeal derives from the pantomime approach that eschews language. This isn’t exactly a silent world — Shaun’s escapades are backed by plenty of bleats, baas and other boisterous bellows, along with all manner of droll sound effects — but no character “talks” in anything approaching conventional language.

Even human co-stars merely mumble, mutter or murmur in something that never quite manifests as recognizable words or phrases.

This sets Shaun and his friends apart from Wallace and Gromit, who exist in a world of familiar verbal communication. (Well, except for Gromit the dog, who “talks” via heavenward glances, long-suffering sighs and shrugged shoulders.)

Shaun’s alternate approach isn’t terribly difficult to manage in a cartoon short; the challenge arises when the woolly scamp winds up in an 86-minute feature film. That’s where the talents of Aardman’s writers and animators are truly put to the test. They passed, with flying colors, in 2015’s Shaun the Sheep Movie; if this second big-screen outing isn’t quite as fresh — and perhaps not as emotionally touching — it’s no less clever or amusing.

Rest assured, directors Will Becher and Richard Phelan — and writers Jon Brown, Mark Burton and Nick Park — give us plenty to chuckle over.

Farmageddon shamelessly (and affectionately) riffs all manner of classic science-fiction franchises: from E.T. and Close Encounters, to The X-Files and Doctor Who, with similar nods to WALL-E2001: A Space Odyssey and even the factory scene from 1936’s Charlie Chaplin classic, Modern Times. The references aren’t limited to sight gags; composer Tom Howe’s vivacious score similarly channels everything from John Williams-esque themes to Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra” (heard during the tight close-up of a monolithic piece of bread emerging from a toaster).

We know we’re in good hands from the very beginning, when the Aardman Animation logo is introduced — with considerable pizzazz — by one of Shaun’s barnyard flock.

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Photograph: Nicely developed

The Photograph (2020) • View trailer 
Four stars. PG-13, for sensuality and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.14.20

It has been so long between gentle, sensitively constructed relationship dramas, that it took a minor act of will to get back into their rhythm.

While trying to satisfy his curiosity regarding a famous photographer with humble
Louisiana roots, Michael (LaKeith Stanfield) encounters Mae (Issa Rae), currently
curating an exhibit of the woman's work.
Writer/director Stella Meghie’s thoughtful little film shares its charms without bombast. No car chases or explosions. No gun battles. No ironic catastrophes. No unexpected, life-altering freak accidents. No natural disasters or other indications of Mother Nature’s displeasure. (Well, OK; there is a hurricane. But it serves mostly as a backdrop that heightens the developing intensity between two characters.)

This is just an uncomplicated set of cleverly intertwined love stories between characters separated by time but linked by behavior.

How utterly refreshing.

Meghie has an unerring ear for naturalistic dialog — whether flirty or contemplative — all of which is delivered with persuasive sincerity by her well-sculpted characters. It’s always fun to watch such people fall in love; movies have excelled at that since the medium’s conception (but not so much lately, sad to say).

It’s equally engaging to fret over conflicted, angst-riddled individuals who put head above heart: to wonder whether they’ll see the light and take the offered shot at romance. Or, indeed, if instead we must acknowledge that some folks are destined for a path that doesn’t include the stability (confinement?) of conventional togetherness.

And whether they’ll come to regret such a decision.

Journalist Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield), a rising star at a New York-based magazine, heads down to Louisiana for a feature piece on how coastal communities are recovering, post-Katrina and Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Answer: Not well.) His local contact is crab fisherman Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan, nicely understated), a modest, easygoing fellow who never felt compelled to abandon the environment in which he grew up.

During an otherwise routine interview, Michael’s attention is drawn to a series of striking, black-and-white photographs, including one of the photographer herself: Christina Eames, a native daughter who broke Isaac’s heart a generation ago, when she left to seek fame and fortune in New York.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Birds of Prey: Claws for alarm

Birds of Prey (2020) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for relentless profanity and violence, gore and brief drug use

By Derrick Bang

Margot Robbie’s mischievous grin, triple-dog-dare-ya gaze and pugnacious insolence are the main attraction in Birds of Prey, an unapologetically vulgar super-villain romp on par with Marvel’s Deadpool entries.

With the odds stacked impossibly against them, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, center)
persuades her companions — from left, ex-cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Mafia
princess Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and nightclub singer Dinah Lance
(Jurnee Smollett-Bell) — to band together, in order to protext young Cassandra Cain
(Ella Jay Basco, rear).
Fans of the latter will know precisely what they’re getting, with this similarly outré dip in the DC Comics universe.

During decades of myth-making, both comic book franchises occasionally have introduced villains who — thanks to reader enthusiasm for the character — have “reformed” and become forces of virtue. To a degree. 

Sometimes not much of a degree.

It’s hard to imagine Harley Quinn truly abandoning her bad-ass behavior; the best one could expect is that she becomes a lesser scoundrel while pursuing a much more heinous adversary (for her own reasons, of course, as opposed to anything having to do with the greater good).

Harley is, after all, the Joker’s equally homicidal girlfriend: firmly established, cinematically, in 2016’s Suicide Squad. But things change, and — as related during a droll animated prologue in this new film — Harley and her “Puddin’ ” have parted ways. (He threw her out.) Once past the initial heartbreak stage — Robbie camping it up as a pouting, alcohol-hazed, jilted lover — this “emancipation” initially seems like a good thing.

Ah, but absent the Joker’s protective embrace, Harley has become fair game for every thug and plug-ugly she once humiliated.

And that’s mere sidebar to Christina Hodson’s relentlessly snarky script. Robbie’s Harley narrates this saga in aggressively non-linear fashion, frequently backing up to fill in a key detail, and often breaking the fourth wall to address us directly in her delightfully sing-songy, working-class Brooklyn accent. This approach isn’t as confusing as it sounds, because the story isn’t that deep.

The nefariously narcissistic Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), mercurial owner of the popular Black Mask nightclub, is a bloodthirsty villain who has set his sights on the Bertinelli Diamond: not for the gem itself, but because it’s encrypted with essential information about that now-deceased Mafia family’s immense financial estate. Backed by such wealth, Sionis could rule Gotham City’s underworld.

The little bauble has been located, and Sionis sends his ghoulish right-hand-man, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), to fetch it. Alas, he falls victim to young pickpocket Cassandra “Cass” Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who — bad luck all around — is caught in the act by Gotham City Police Department Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). Result: One young felon in a GCPD jail cell.

Not wanting the gem to be found, she quite logically swallows it.