Friday, August 5, 2022

Thirteen Lives: Absolutely riveting

Thirteen Lives (2022) • View trailer
Five stars (out of five). Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and brief profanity
Available via: Amazon Prime
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.5.22

Lightning does strike twice in the same spot.

 

Back in 1995, with Apollo 13, director Ron Howard achieved the impossible: He generated minute-by-minute, edge-of-the-seat suspense despite the fact that we knew, going in, what the outcome would be.

 

As the Thai Navy SEALs watch dubiously, British Cave Rescue Council divers Rick Stanton
(Viggo Mortensen, foreground left) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell, foreground right)
begin their attempt to penetrate deep into the cave system, in order to determine if the
missing children are alive.


He has achieved the same with Thirteen Lives.

 

This was another “The whole world is watching” event, during late June and early July 2018. Social media shared updates in real time; eyes were glued to televised news feeds. Given what eventually went down, a big-screen drama was inevitable.

 

The result — in the hands of Howard and scripters William Nicholson and Don MacPherson — is must-see cinema.

 

(That said, this is not a film for claustrophobes.)

 

On June 23, following a playful afternoon scrimmage, 12 members of the “Wild Boars” Thai soccer team, ages 11 to 16, impulsively decide to visit the popular Tham Luang cave beneath Doi Nang Non, a mountain range bordering Thailand and Myanmar. Their assistant coach (played by James Teeradon Sahajak) insists on chaperoning. 

 

Back in their Chiang Rai province village, the team parents have gathered for one boy’s birthday party. When the team fails to show up on time, amid the drenching rain of an unexpectedly early monsoon, one lad — who opted out of the cave excursion — tells where they all went. As a body, everybody rushes to Tham Luang.

 

They find the boys’ parked bicycles at the cave entrance, but there’s no sign of anybody … and the water level inside the cave is rising rapidly.

 

What happens next ultimately involves roughly 100 government officials, 900 police officers, 2,000 soldiers and more than 10,000 volunteers from 18 countries, all of whom rapidly build what essentially becomes a bustling pop-up city outside the cave.

 

It’s barely organized chaos, but Howard has long excelled at finding the small moments and key individuals amid such bedlam; that’s where gripping drama resides. Nicholson and MacPherson’s script enhances the tension by delivering key dollops of information — such as the cave’s length — in small increments.

 

The film’s first audacious move comes when days pass, and the focus remains on the expanding rescue operation; we get no cut-aways to the boys and their coach, and we wonder: Are they even alive?

 

On top of which, as we learn more about the lengthy cave’s various zones, twists and turns — now mostly flooded — the situation seems dire. Hopeless. Impossible.

Friday, July 29, 2022

The Gray Man: Colorfully overblown

The Gray Man (2022) • View trailer
Three stars (out of five). Rated PG-13, for intense violence and action, and some profanity
Available via: Netflix
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.29.22

Given the often exaggerated genre we’re dealing with, this film trundles along reasonably well … until most of downtown Prague — and its entire police force — are blown to bits during the dog-nuts second act (apparently without sparking an international incident).

 

With scores of gun-toting thugs laying waste to downtown Prague while trying to kill him,
Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling) is about to make clever use of a passing tram.
In their obvious efforts to kick-start a new franchise, scripters Joe Russo, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have retained very little of Mark Greaney’s 2009 espionage thriller (first in a series of 11 books thus far). Russo and co-director Anthony Russo have uncorked a fast-paced loner-against-the-world saga which — despite becoming increasingly preposterous — ticks all the boxes for folks seeking mindless thrills.

And, in fairness, we get a solid set of (quasi) good guys, victims in peril, and some very very bad guys.

 

During a brief prologue set 18 years in the past, Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling) is rescued from a lengthy prison sentence by upper-echelon CIA handler Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton).

 

“What’s the catch?” Gentry asks.

 

“You come work for us,” Fitzroy replies.

 

Turns out Gentry has mad assassin skills, but — as the first action sequence reveals, once we bounce back to the present day — also possesses a strong desire to avoid collateral civilian damage. Gentry has become a highly valued member of Fitzroy’s dark-ops “Sierra” program, his identity submerged beneath the code-name Sierra Six, or simply Six: aka the Gray Man.

 

Unfortunately, Fitzroy was pushed into retirement a few years back, his place taken by the ruthlessly ambitious Agency Group Chief Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page, suitably condescending), who lacks his predecessor’s scruples. Worse yet — for reasons not immediately revealed — he has no use for the Sierra program, and is busily “cleaning house” in a lethal manner.

 

This doesn’t sit well with Deputy Group Chief Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick), who regards her boss as reckless and arrogant. She spends the entire film barking objections at his heels, to the point of turning into a tiresome nag. It’s not a well-crafted role, and Henwick brings nothing to the party.

 

When Six accidentally gains possession of intel that would destroy Carmichael’s career, the latter hires charming, kill-crazy psychopath Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) to terminate the final link in the Sierra chain.

 

Hansen, who torments his targets for sport, is introduced while torturing some poor schlub; we therefore know he’s Not A Nice Guy.

 

Friday, July 22, 2022

Last Night in Soho: Absolutely exhilarating

Last Night in Soho (2021) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rated R, for drug use, violence and considerable profanity
Available via: HBO Max

Director Edgar Wright’s new film is an exhilarating, boldly audacious slice of cinematic razzle-dazzle: a breathtaking experience with a true sense of wonder.

 

Last Night in Soho barely achieved theatrical release late last year, which is a shame; it screams to be seen on the big screen.

 

Sandie (Anna Taylor-Joy, left), resigned to the direction her life has taken, prepares for
another evening at the club, while Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) watches from the
other side of a mirror.

Wright is no stranger to boldly imaginative fantasies — often laced with a cheeky sense of humor — with an oeuvrethat stretches from 2004’s Shaun of the Dead to 2017’s Baby Driver. Thanks to a cunningly crafted storyline co-written with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Last Night in Soho constantly confounds expectations, plunging its young heroine into a most unusual journey.

Wright also is known for making savvy use of music, and at first blush his new film seems a sweet love letter to 1960s pop tunes. A lengthy prologue introduces Eloise “Ellie” Turner (Thomasin McKenzie), a sweet but unsophisticated young woman who lives with her grandmother Peggy (Rita Tushingham) in rural Redruth, Cornwall. Ellie adores the music and fashion of the Swinging Sixties; the title credits appear against Peter & Gordon’s “A World Without Love,” as she capers about her bedroom in a handmade newspaper dress.

 

Wright augments this nostalgic atmosphere by casting 1960s icons — Tushingham, Diana Rigg and Terence Stamp — as supporting characters. (Sharp-eyed viewers also might recognize Margaret Nolan, who memorably played the voluptuous Dink in Goldfinger, and who pops up here as a wise barmaid.)

 

Ellie has long dreamed of studying at the London College of Fashion, and her eyes go sparkling wide upon receiving an acceptance letter. Peggy is concerned; she knows that Ellie’s mother — also a fashion designer — killed herself for reasons unspecified, and that the impressionable Ellie has a tendency to occasionally “see” her mother, like a watchfully lingering spirit.

 

Peggy’s apprehension is justified, because nothing could have prepared Ellie for the cacophonous hustle and bustle of her late-night arrival in London, against the deafening opening bars of John Barry’s jazz/rock title theme to 1960’s Beat Girl. Her rowdy college dorm is even worse, when she’s immediately targeted by a posse of “mean girls” — led by her new roommate, Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen, impressively bitchy) — who feign friendship just long enough to more accurately mock Ellie’s country-mouse innocence.

 

Knowing that she’d never survive in this unrestrained atmosphere of alcohol, drugs and casual sex, Ellie flees to a charming upstairs room in a bedsit run by the elderly Ms. Collins (Rigg, in her final role). Naturally, this abode is located on Goodge Street, popularized in a 1965 song by Donovan (which, I was surprised to discover, is not included in this film’s retro soundtrack).

 

That night, Ellie wakens into a participatory dream; she wanders down a shadowy corridor until — just as Cilla Black’s “You’re My World” hits its crescendo — she stumbles into 1960s Soho. The transition is breathtaking; Wright, production designer Marcus Rowland and costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux fill this streetscape with sparkling vintage vehicles, nattily attired men, gorgeously dressed women, and all manner of period-specific décor.

 

Sean Connery presides over everything from a massive marquee poster for Thunderball, atop a handsome movie theater.

 

The authenticity notwithstanding, the result is an opulently stylized, somewhat larger-than-life London: much the way Quentin Tarantino re-imaged Los Angeles, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; and Jean-Pierre Jeunet gave us an impossibly perfect Paris, in Amélie.

Nope: My sentiments precisely

Nope (2022) • View trailer
No stars (turkey). Rated R, for bloody violence and relentless profanity
Available via: Movie theaters
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.22.22

Jordan Peele, who won a well-deserved writing Oscar for his breakthrough hit — 2018’s Get Out — has succumbed to the M. Night Shyamalan curse.

 

Each new film tries harder, yet achieves less.

 

Having learned enough to realize that they're dealing with something quite nasty, our
heroes — from left, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), Emerald (Keke Palmer) and Angel
(Brandon Perea) can't imagine what to do next.


In this case, much less.

Nope — a terrible title, just in passing — obviously began life as a 10-word elevator pitch (which I cannot speculate upon, due to spoilers). It might have turned into a decently chilling 20-minute short, but as a 135-minute vanity flop, the result is a dull, interminable slog.

 

Ten minutes into this bomb, it’s blindingly obvious that we’re dealing with a world-class stinker. And it doesn’t get any better. Worse, in fact.

 

Following two brief prologues — I’ll dial back to those in a moment — we meet siblings OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer), who are struggling to maintain the legacy of their father’s specialty horse ranch, which provides animals for Hollywood shoots, theme parks and the like. Their operation, located in the isolated Agua Dulce desert in northern Los Angeles County, hangs by a thread.

 

OJ is expressionless and taciturn to the point of somnambulance, throughout this entire story; he makes Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” — back in that actor’s 1960s spaghetti western days — look and sound Shakespearean. It takes genuine talent to guide an actor with Kaluuya’s significant chops into such a relentlessly dull and lackluster performance, but Peele — who wrote, directed and produced this turkey — somehow managed.

 

Emerald, in contrast, is shrill, profane, insolent, mean-spirited and — in short — absolutely intolerable. Palmer behaves as if she’s revved up on cocaine the entire time; her performance is unrestrained, unintelligible and unlikable. We loathe her character on sight, and Palmer isn’t helped by the stream-of-consciousness babble that Peele apparently believes passes for dialogue.

 

Rarely have two movie characters so effectively — and so quickly — turned an audience off. The very thought of spending more than two hours with them is unbearable.

 

First, though, we endure the travesty of prologue No. 1, as a TV family sitcom shoot goes awry when its star — a chimpanzee — suddenly attacks his human co-stars in a gory swath of blood-laden rage.

 

The notion that any filmmaker would be insensitive enough to mount such a tasteless spectacle — in our more enlightened, post-Jane Goodall era — is utterly appalling. It’s also an indication of unrestrained arrogance on Peele’s part, particularly since it adds nothing to his film.

Friday, July 15, 2022

The Sea Beast: Monstrously entertaining

The Sea Beast (2022) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rated PG, for dramatic intensity
Available via: Netflix
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.15.22

Shrewdly thoughtful parables don’t get much better — or more enjoyable — than this one.

 

Director/co-scripter Chris Williams’ cunningly crafted “whale of a tale” deftly laces its gorgeously animated adventure saga with underlying themes of loyalty, inclusiveness, environmental awareness and — this is the biggie — the folly of blindly placing one’s faith in “accepted tradition.”

 

Despite his best efforts, Jacob always seems to get into trouble when Maisie is involved.


That’s a boatload of messaging, but the genius of Williams and Nell Benjamin’s script is that their film never feels like it’s preaching; such elements are an organic part of a thoroughly enjoyable story.

The setting is a somewhat familiar world, at a time akin to our late 17th century era of coastal towns and cities supported by sailing vessels. But these waters are laden with enormous sea beasts that prey on defenseless cargo ships, which has led to generations of heroic monster hunters who set sail in tall ships in order to attack these underwater giants.

 

It’s dangerous work, and the town orphanage is filled with children whose parents have perished in battle.

 

No ship is more respected than The Inevitable, helmed by the legendary Capt. Crow (voiced by Jared Harris) and his stalwart crew, most notably surrogate son Jacob Holland (Karl Urban). They’ve long defeated such monsters, at constant risk to life and limb, always returning to port with proof of kill — a tusk, a tail spike, a claw — for the King (Jim Carter), Queen (Doon Mackichan) and grateful townsfolk.

 

The film opens with a rip-snortin’ clash between The Inevitable and a Brickleback: an impressively nasty, hard-shelled behemoth with massive, ship-shredding tentacles. This is an exciting, tautly edited sequence — Joyce Arrastia, take a bow — that establishes the characters of Crow, Jacob, Lt. Sarah Sharpe (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and taskmaster Ms. Merino (Helen Sadler).

 

Nobody admires them more than little Maisie Brumble (Zaris-Angel Hator), an orphan who has long dreamed of becoming a monster hunter: in part to avenge her parents, who went down with The Monarch. Maisie has devoured the many books that have mythologized Captain Crow, Jacob, The Inevitable and all their predecessors.

 

She’s also quite precocious and outspoken, with a tendency to “escape” from the orphanage — and then get dragged back — each time a monster-hunting ship returns to port. Needless to say, she’s not about to miss the Inevitable’s arrival.

 

But what should be a celebratory occasion is blunted by the King’s decision to decommission all monster-hunting vessels, and their crews. The task instead will be assigned to the Royal Navy, which has just developed a heavily armed battle ship: The Imperator, helmed by the vainglorious Adm. Hornagold (Dan Stevens).

 

In part, the King pompously adds, because Crow and The Inevitable never have been able to chase down the most fearsome of all sea beasts: the massive Red Bluster.

Don't Make Me Go: Revelatory road trip

Don't Make Me Go (2022) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rated R, for graphic nudity, profanity, teen drinking and vulgar sexual candor
Available via: Amazon Prime

It’s every parent’s dilemma: How candid should one be with children, as they progress through the teenage years?

 

And does — should — that paradigm shift, if the stakes unexpectedly turn dire?

 

It's bad enough that Max (John Cho) bears the weight of two heavy secrets; attempting
to remain calm while his daughter Wally (Mia Isaac) is behind the wheel, is almost
more than he can stand.


Writer Vera Herbert has long demonstrated a superbly nuanced sense of relationship dynamics: most notably as a prime mover on the TV series This Is Us, which garnered well-deserved Emmy nominations for Outstanding Drama Series during four of its six seasons. Her scripts speak from the heart, and this new film is particularly personal — and likely cathartic — because it was inspired by the bond with her father, who died unexpectedly when she was 18.

Coupled with Hannah Marks’ equally sensitive direction, the result is a warm, touching father/daughter drama that is by turns funny, frustrating, maddening, poignant and heartwarming.

 

And often messy, just like real life.

 

Max Park (John Cho) long ago gave up his dream of a career in music, when his wife abandoned him shortly after the birth of their daughter, Wally. He settled for a drone-like office job, in order to have the financial security necessary to create the life he thought was appropriate for a child.

 

But at 16, Wally (Mia Isaac) is no longer a child, and Max is finding it more difficult to handle the impetuous recklessness and unfiltered emotional outbursts of these teenage years. He worries that they’re drifting apart, and this makes him nervous and uneasy … which, because she’s so well tuned to her father’s moods, increases her anxiety.

 

Max also has been suffering from increasingly severe headaches. Visits to a doctor produce a shattering result: a malignant tumor at the base of his brain. Although surgical intervention could save his life, his chances of surviving the procedure are extremely low. Without the surgery, he can expect to live for about a year.

 

Max therefore opts to forgo the operation, and instead spend the year preparing Wally for his eventual absence.

 

He doesn’t tell her any of this. He confides only in his on-again/off-again girlfriend, Annie, whose subsequent reaction — once she has a chance to process the news — is agonizingly uncomfortable (and very well played, by Kaya Scodelario).

 

Not everybody has the emotional bandwidth to watch somebody slowly die.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

The Princess: Bold and bodacious

The Princess (2022) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rated R, for strong bloody violence and profanity
Available via: Hulu

Guilty pleasure time.

 

Director Le-Van Kiet’s fast-and-furiously paced action thriller is a snarky Me Too riff on fairy tales, with 21st century gal power cheekily re-writing a “woman’s role” during medieval times. 

 

The Princess (Joey King, left) and her friend Linh (Veronica Ngo) prepare to fend off
another wave of enraged mercenaries.


The result is both fun and quite satisfying, thanks in great part to Joey King’s bruised, battered but never beaten performance in the title role.

Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton’s script blends back-story and character development with all manner of ferocious swordplay and hard-charging ass-kicking. Fight choreographer/coordinator Kefi Abrikh makes imaginative use of the mostly confined settings, with Kiet and editor Alex Fenn moving things right along.

 

The result is a thoroughly enjoyable 94-minute roller coaster ride: perfect for a rowdy movie night.

 

The film opens with a droll nod to once-upon-a-timing, as cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore’s camera slowly pans toward a tall castle tower, and then through a window to reveal the Princess — she’s never named — sleeping in this top-most chamber. But illusions of tranquility are shattered when she awakes with a start, her hands shackled in cuffs.

 

Worse yet, her locked room suddenly is invaded by two thuggish guards sent to “check on her.” Whatever the reason for her confinement, it ain’t good, and we get a sense of the Princess’ gritty determination when — fearing the worst from the guards — she deals with the cuffs. Painfully.

 

What follows is an eye-popping display of cool moves and adrenaline-fueled rage, which compensates for the woman’s diminutive stature. Exit two guards, one of them quite dramatically.

 

King is a modest 5-foot-4, but Kiet and Abrikh actually turn that into an advantage, as the subsequent melees and skirmishes become increasingly aggressive.

 

(I must admit, it’s a bit jarring to see King in such a role; I still remember her fondly as Beverly Cleary’s mischievous Ramona Quimby, in 2010’s Ramona and Beezus.)

 

As we soon learn via occasional flashbacks, her parents — the realm’s King (Ed Stoppard) and Queen (Alex Reid) — birthed only daughters: the Princess and her younger sister, Violet (Katelyn Rose Downey). Because of this absence of a male heir upon whom to eventually bestow the crown, the King agreed to let his daughter marry a neighboring noble, the opportunistic Julius (Dominic Cooper).

 

Ah, but Julius is a bloodthirsty, power-hungry sadist, which the Princess — a young woman who refuses to “know her place” — recognizes all too well. Tradition and family loyalty notwithstanding, she’s too headstrong and independent to tolerate such nonsense; she jilts Julius at the altar.