Monday, November 29, 2021

King Richard: Game, set and match!

King Richard (2021) • View trailer
Five stars (out of five). Rated PG-13, for violence, brief profanity, sexual candor and fleeting drug references
Available via: Movie theaters and (until December 19) HBO Max

Truth isn’t merely stranger than fiction; sometimes it’s also more inspiring.


Director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard is many things: an amazing underdog story, a touching family drama, a gently powerful indictment of institutional racism, and — most of all — the inspiring study of one man’s determination to doggedly persevere, despite being repeatedly knocked down … in some cases, literally.


Serena (Demi Singleton, left) and Venus (Saniyya Sidney) listen intently as their father,
Richard (Will Smith) emphasizes the need to give equal weight to training body,
mind and soul.

In a stunning screenwriter debut, Zach Baylin’s sensitivity to this true-life saga is sublime; he has a keen ear for husband/wife and parent/child dynamics, and an acute awareness of how to play us viewers. At various moments, we laugh, cry, wince or hold our breath in nervous anticipation.

Given that Serena and Venus Williams serve as co-executive producers, there’s no doubt they’ve intended this film as a valentine to their father, and an acknowledgment of the miracle that he wrought. That said, there’s no false sentimentality here; the emotions are credible and authentic, the journey never contrived or sensationalized.


Actually, there’s no need; the truth is astonishing enough on its own.


Nor is this a hearts-and-flowers depiction of the man who molded two of the world’s greatest tennis stars. Will Smith’s starring performance — certain to earn an Oscar nomination — is prickly at times: frequently admirable, but often unlikable. By all accounts (including his own), Richard Williams was very difficult to live or work with: stubborn, demanding and often unreasonable, answering solely to his own (frequently bewildering) logic and carefully crafted vision.


He’s the epitome of “my way or the highway.” As it happens, though, his way usually proves successful.


Smith’s portrayal is all these things, along with nobler aspects: devotion to his wife and daughters; fierce protectiveness, to the point of personal peril; a stickler for family values and a solid work ethic; a shrewd judge of character; and a pragmatic awareness of the limitations society places on its Black citizens … along with a feisty desire to circumvent such restrictions, whenever possible.


He’s also the man of a thousand maxims. The film’s best running gag is the relish with which Smith delivers these pearls of wisdom, with a slight, totally endearing mangling of the King’s English: dead-on accurate to the actual Richard’s cadence … as is the unhurried, gently swaying manner with which he walks.


The performance is fascinating … as is the man himself.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

House of Gucci: Dressed to Kill

House of Gucci (2021) • View trailer
4.5 stars (out of five). Rated R, for profanity, sexual content, brief nudity and violence
Available via: Movie theaters
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.26.21

These folks would have been right at home in the 15th century, living next door to the Borgias.


Ridley Scott’s cheeky depiction of the Machiavellian treachery, manipulation, avarice and grasping ambition that roiled the fabled Italian fashion empire for two decades, is a showcase of bravura acting chops by five high-wattage stars. The narrative approach is simultaneously giddy, sordid and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, the latter due to the often arch script by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna, adapting Sara Gay Forden’s 2000 non-fiction book.


Patrizia (Lady Gaga, second from right) listens intently as Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino, far
right) waxes enthusiastic about his plans for the fashion empire, while — from left —
Paolo Gucci (Jared Leto), his wife Jenny (Florence Andrews) and Maurizio Gucci
(Adam Driver) listen, with varying degrees of interest.

Ah, the obscenely rich. They truly are their own repugnant species.

At its core, this is the saga of two fathers, two sons, and the scheming woman who — with impressive success — maneuvers them against each other. The latter is played by Lady Gaga, with a mesmerizing blend of dramatic intensity and voluptuousness rarely seen on screen since Marilyn Monroe’s reign. We hang on her every word, deed and sinuous shimmy; cinematographer Dariusz Wolski ensures that she’s framed and lighted — and frequently shadowed, within sinister darkness — for maximum carnality.


The setting is the late 1970s. Patrizia Reggiani is introduced working for her adoptive father, Fernando (Vincent Riotta), who runs a successful Italian trucking empire. Scott opens his film as Patrizia saunters to the trailer office on an average morning, in a form-fitting va-va-voom dress, deliberately teasing the drivers hosing down their rigs. It’s an entrance, by Lady Gaga at her most vampish, that tells us everything necessary about this woman.


Her family’s success allows Patrizia to mingle with the jet set; during a discotheque party, she chances to meet Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver). He’s shy and bookish, clearly uncomfortable in this raucous, libidinous environment; Driver is oddly endearing in this stammering nerd mode.


Patrizia seems unlikely to give him a second glance; indeed, her initial approach is mildly taunting, which embarrasses Maurizio even further. But her attitude abruptly shifts upon hearing his last name; we can practically hear the click of opportunistic hunger behind her eyes.


She subsequently stalks him. He’s surprised and flattered, and succumbs all too quickly. Really, he’s no match for her.


Maurizio takes her to meet his father, Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), who with his bother Aldo (Al Pacino) controls the Gucci empire. But although Rodolfo carefully safeguards his 50 percent, wholly expecting Maurizio — studying to become a lawyer — to one day take his place, he has little to do with business operations. He’s distant, withdrawn and distracted by ghosts from his past.


Even so, Rodolfo is a shrewd, steely eyed judge of character, and he sizes up Patrizia in a heartbeat. “She is not the girl for you,” he cautions, in a stern tone that matches the gravitas Irons summons for the moment. But Maurizio, hopelessly in love, ignores this counsel.


The aftermath is severe.

Encanto: Far from enchanted

Encanto (2021) • View trailer
One star (out of five). Rated PG, for no particular reason
Available via: Movie theaters

Some films don’t simply turn out bad; they wind up spectacularly awful.


Disney’s new animated musical is such a mess, I scarcely know where to begin.


Astonished to find that her Uncle Bruno is alive and well, Mirabel is surprised — and a
bit unnerved — by the "companions" with whom he shares his Spartan home.

The so-called story — credited to co-directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard, along with four other meddling hands — makes absolutely no sense, as it maladroitly lurches from one bizarrely random sequence to the next. Even fantasy must follow its own set of rules, else the narrative slides into a make-it-up-as-they-go muddle that cannot possibly get viewers involved.

The ludicrously flamboyant song-and-dance sequences seem to have been snatched from some hallucinogenic alternate universe, then stitched clumsily into the warped storyline.


And — with apologies to composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has done so much better elsewhere, and should have known better here — the tunes themselves are entirely unmemorable; each one is desperate to become the next Disney power anthem (and misses by a mile). Aside from the first song — which is mildly clever, and evokes the introductory “Belle,” from Beauty and the Beast — the rest don’t even try to integrate with the story’s clumsy flow, instead bringing the film to a whiplash-inducing halt every time.


Not even half an hour into this misfire, each time Germaine Franco’s background score began to swell, Constant Companion and I exchanged horrified glances and spoke our own sotto voce chorus of “Oh, gawd; not another one…!”


The film also is laden with sight-gags, some reasonably amusing but often pointless, as if the writers hope such antics will distract us from the vapid storyline.


What. A. Waste. Of. Time. And. Talent. 


Even at a comparatively brief 99 minutes, this is a butt-numbing slog.


The eye-rolling saga defies easy summation, but I’ll give it a shot.


After many of the inhabitants of a peaceful Colombian town of Indigenous people are executed by gun-toting assassins — so much more horrifying than Bambi’s mother being shot by a hunter! — new young mother Abuela Alma Madrigal (voiced by María Cecilia Botero) chances upon a magic candle (!), whose power raises tall mountains around what becomes the survivors’ new community of Encanto.


The candle also “builds” an amazing magical house for Abuela Alma and her three triplet children: Julieta, Pepa and Bruno. On their collective fifth birthday, three new golden-hued doors appear in the upstairs hallway, leading to a new enchanted bedroom that grants its occupant a magical power.


The inexhaustible candle presides over all such activities, glowing cheerfully from an upper-floor window.

Friday, November 19, 2021

India Sweets and Spices: A delectable recipe

India Sweets and Spices (2021) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rated PG-13, for some profanity, mild sensuality and brief drug references
Available via: Movie theaters

Parents aren’t always who we think they are.


And if an unexpected revelation is significant enough, it can prompt the re-evaluation of a lifetime’s worth of assumptions.


Sparks immediately fly when Alia (Sophia Ali) meets Varun (Rish Shah) at his parents'
neighborhood Indian food store.

Although the tone of writer/director Geeta Malik’s charming coming-of-age dramedy is droll and lightweight, her story takes pointed shots at hypocrisy, class snobbery and the pain of burying one’s true nature.

The setting is Ruby Hill, New Jersey, a posh suburban oasis of mini-mansions, backyard swimming pools and luxury cars, inhabited solely by wealthy émigrés from India. Everybody gathers for lavish dinner parties hosted by a different family each Saturday: ostensibly to enjoy the groaning tables of rich and exotic foods, but mostly so that the local posse of “aunties” — the neighborhood wives — can indulge in one-upmanship while finding fresh targets to mock, disapprove of, and gossip about.


Alia Kapur (Sophia Ali) grew up in this environment, but a freshman year at UCLA has widened her eyes to the vast melting pot offered by these United States. Returning home for the summer suddenly feels stifling, her honor’s list of pre-med grades overlooked as she’s once again forced to don a sari while offering trays of appetizers and tea like a servile waitress.


The aforementioned “aunties” watch closely, hoping to pounce on the slightest lapse of demureness.


Alia’s father Ranjit (Adil Hussain), whom she adores, is sympathetic to his eldest child’s predicament; he seems willing to let Alia blaze her own trail. But her straight-laced mother, Sheila (Manisha Koirala), is every bit as strict and proper as the rest of the adult women; there’s no doubt she expects her daughter to marry “properly,” perhaps to hunky Ved (Rahul Singh), who definitely shows interest.


Later in the week, when Alia is sent to fetch supplies at a new local Indian foods shop — the name of which gives this film its title — she meets cute with Varun (Rish Shah), the cheerful son of the shopkeepers. Flirty banter briefly ensues. Believing it a friendly gesture toward neighborhood newcomers, she impulsively invites him and his parents, Bhairavi (Deepti Gupta) and Kamlesh (Kamran Shaikh), to the upcoming Saturday soirée.


Big mistake.


The silence that blankets the room, when Varun and his folks arrive at the door, bearing a heartbreakingly humble container of sweets, reeks of censure: What are these common laborers doing here?


Malik’s long, frozen take on this tableau is agonizing. 


Red Notice: Old-school thrills and spills

Red Notice (2021) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rated PG-13, for violene, action, mild sensuality and fleeting profanity
Available via: Netflix
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.19.21

This certainly is the epitome of dumb fun: a triumph of star wattage and slick filmmaking, over credibility and plot logic.


Just as Harley (Dwayne Johnson, left) and Booth (Ryan Reynolds) find one of Cleopatra's
fabled jeweled eggs, somebody else unexpectedly arrives ... and insists on taking it.

Writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s newest collaboration with Dwayne Johnson — they previously worked together on Central Intelligence and Skyscraper — is a globe-trotting heist comedy that buries its narrative shortcomings with audacity and sheer momentum: a throwback to big, bold, swashbuckling “movie star movies.”

The result is surprisingly entertaining, even when things become ridiculous (which happens rather frequently).


One must admire the cheek of a scripter who stages his third act in a long-dormant Nazi lair in Argentina: a setting so strikingly reminiscent of Indiana Jones, that co-star Ryan Reynolds cements the moment by whistling a few bars of John Williams’ “Raiders March.”


(This is just one of Thurber’s cheeky nods to other movie moments.)


Events begin in Rome, at a posh museum bannering the display of one of Cleopatra’s three fabled jeweled eggs (akin to a Fabergé egg, but the size of a football). American FBI agent John Hartley (Johnson), on loan to assist Interpol Inspector Urvashi Das (Ritu Arya), has credible evidence that master thief Nolan Booth (Reynolds) will attempt to steal the treasure on this very day.


Hartley’s intel comes from a shadowy underworld figure known only as The Bishop, who tends to play both sides against the middle. Even so…


…the information proves accurate, which leads to a stunning foot-chase between Hartley and Booth, choreographed by supervising stunt coordinator George Cottle, and tightly edited for slam-bang intensity by Julian Clarke and Michael L. Sale. This sequence is worthy of Jackie Chan and James Bond, with parkour free-running, jumps, falls, kicks, punches and an ingenious melee on some metal scaffolding.


Alas, Booth escapes. With the egg.


But not for long. Hartley and Das find him at home in Bali (!), where the latter retrieves the egg and promises Booth a “special” sort of incarceration. 

Friday, November 12, 2021

Finch: Post-apocalyptic sentimentality

Finch (2021) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rated PG-13, for violent images and dramatic intensity
Available via: Apple TV+
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.12.21

Tom Hanks apparently wasn’t satisfied with spending the majority of a film interacting solely with a volleyball, even if that coup did bring him an Oscar nomination. After all, 2000’s Cast Away did involve other people during the prologue and conclusion.


Ready for just about anything: Finch (Tom Hanks, left) and his humanoid robot companion
pack abundant supplies into a waiting RV, while the four-legged Goodyear leads the way.

Finch, on the other hand, is solely a one-man show.


Except that it isn’t … not really. Nor am I certain Hanks is the stand-out actor here; that honor arguably belongs to Seamus, co-starring as the four-legged Goodyear.


Since movies often reflect the times in which they’re made, the world clearly has been in a highly anxious state for awhile now, given the number of post-apocalyptic projects we’ve gotten during the past several years. This is yet another one, and scripters Craig Luck and Ivor Powell quickly establish as bleak a scenario as could be imagined.


For once (happily?), the cause is beyond human control.


The time is roughly 15 years in the future; the barren, heat-blasted St. Louis cityscape is beset by swirling sand and dust. Finch Weinberg (Hanks) appears amidst this inhospitable environment, unrecognized within a protective radiation suit, accompanied by a modified lunar rover possessing the ability to see and respond to spoken commands, while using its single extendable clawed appendage as needed.


(Given this ’bot’s appearance, and the fact that it’s named Dewey, the homage to 1972’s Silent Running clearly is intentional.)


They’re scavenging as-yet unsearched stores for anything useful, carefully avoiding the occasional skeletized body.


As we gradually learn, a massive solar flare destroyed Earth’s ozone layer a decade earlier. Temperatures rose to 150 degrees; ultraviolet radiation became instantly deadly. The resourceful Finch, one of few survivors, built himself a well-equipped bunker in the basement of the robotics lab where he once worked. He has lived there ever since, accompanied solely by his faithful dog, Goodyear.


Finch has kept busy — and maintained his sanity — with a variety of projects, including his most ambitious yet: a humanoid robot “fed” the scanned contents of the hundreds of reference books found during foraging expeditions. Once sentient, this new companion also is versed in Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, along with a new fourth law.


Although it draws a smile, when spoken, it’s equally serious: “In Finch’s absence, robot must protect the welfare of dog, This directive supersedes all other directives.”

Friday, November 5, 2021

Eternals: Superheroes redux

Eternals (2021) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rated PG-13, for fantasy violence, brief sexuality and fleeting profanity
Available via: Movie theaters
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.05.21 

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is getting crowded.


Seriously, one wonders why these folks don’t bump into each other.


Ikaris (Richard Madden) is unpleasantly surprised to discover that this particularly nasty
Deviant monster seems impervious to his energy blasts.

“Well hello there,” Thor says cheerfully, and he spots Ikaris (more on him in a moment) jetting in the opposite direction. “Whachu up to?”


“Got a big, slimy monster to put down, which just emerged in the Arctic,” Ikaris replies.


“You, too?” Thor adds, before the other is out of earshot. “What say we compare notes over a few brews, after?”


“You’re on!” Ikaris shouts, as he vanishes over the horizon.




As envisioned by comic book luminary Jack Kirby back in 1976, Eternals existed on a cosmological, universe-shaping plain far removed — and quite separate — from everyday superheroes. (Think all-makers such as Odin and Zeus, blended with the arrogant amorality of Thanos and Galactus.)


But director Chloé Zhao — a recent double-Oscar winner, for last year’s Nomadland — was tasked with blending the Eternals with the rest of the MCU. The result — co-scripted with Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo — still feels mostly like a stand-alone entity, although passing reference is made to the Avengers.


As is typical of so many superhero movies, the first two acts are thoughtful, engaging and character-driven. Zhao has a sensitive touch with inter-personal relations: no doubt the reason she was chosen to helm this ambitious slice of myth-making. And while the climactic third act maintains the emotional angst, it also descends into the usual, bombastic sturm und drang that overstays this film’s 157 minutes.


So: Bear with me.


For untold millennia, the massive Celestials — picture brooding, blood red, rock-encrusted, six-sunken-eyed beings the size of our moon — have created new civilizations by seeding planets throughout the galaxy. The Celestials “cleanse” a given planet of pesky apex predators, by sending monstrous Deviants to perform this culling; the Deviants then are destroyed by the noble Eternals, who subsequently (but subtly) help “shape” the rise of the dominant bipedal civilization.


(Seems a rather complicated way to do what evolution handles on its own, but hey: Who am I to argue with a Celestial?)


(There’s also a rather strong echo of the Transformers series’ ongoing war between autobots and decepticons, which diminishes some of this film’s originality.)