Friday, November 27, 2015

The Good Dinosaur: Jurassic lark

The Good Dinosaur (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.27.15

Time and again, the folks at Pixar have demonstrated a talent for wildly imaginative, outside-the-box storytelling.

The secret lives of toys. The source of our nightmares, and our emotions. Superheroes with family and identity crises. The fate of a tiny, semi-sentient robot left alone to clean up a polluted Earth.

Arlo (far right) and his tiny "pet," Spot, find themselves in the middle of a range war, when
a trio of cattle ranchers led by Butch (second from left) take on a pack of rustling
And now, perhaps, the best and biggest “what if” of all: What if that huge asteroid hadn’t hit Earth, roughly 65 million years ago?

According to Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, at least some of the massive saurians would have established an agrarian society, homesteading and raising families much like 19th century American settlers. Indeed, this whole narrative is a playful riff on classic Western archetypes, from the aforementioned farmers to nastier aggressors lurking in outlying regions, with an actual “cattle” round-up thrown in for good measure.

At the same time, traditional family values have been grafted onto dinosaurs, often with droll intent, in the time-honored fashion of countless earlier animated Disney films that have anthropomorphized everything from elephants to Dalmatians. Indeed, much about The Good Dinosaur feels less like “standard” Pixar fare — if there is such a thing — and more like the coming-of-age plot beats of traditional Disney animated storytelling.

Then there’s also the matter of the rather unusual “pet” nipping at the edges of everything else here: a narrative element likely to make ultra-conservative, man-is-the-center-of-everything types choke on their Cheerios.

If all this sounds like rather a lot for one film, well ... yes, that’s an issue. “The Good Dinosaur” feels a bit overcooked, and it lacks the tight focus that marks Pixar’s best films. I’m always wary of scripts credited to multiple authors, and this one acknowledges five writers — Peter Sohn, Erik Benson, Meg LeFauve, Kelsey Mann and Bob Peterson — with Sohn also in the director’s chair.

At times, this saga doesn’t quite know how to find its legs, much like the title character.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Brooklyn: Endearing coming-of-age drama

Brooklyn (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and rather harshly, for brief sensuality

By Derrick Bang

There’s a moment in this film when Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) pauses at the top of the stairs in her home in tiny Enniscorthy, Ireland.

Director John Crowley holds on this hushed and wordless tableau, as Eilis thoroughly scans her bedroom, and the room immediately adjoining. Ronan’s expression is intent and focused, her carefully composed gaze a blend of determination and regret.

Eilis (Saoirse Ronan, second from right) listens warily as Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters, center
rear) responds to some thinly veiled gibes from Patty (Emily Bett Rickards, far left) and
Diana (Eve Macklin, second from left). Given half a chance, Eilis knows, Patty and Diana
will make fun of her.
And we understand that she’s memorizing these rooms — this childhood haven where she grew up — certain in the knowledge that she’ll never return. The realization is heartbreaking: one of the most poignant leave-takings I’ve ever seen on the big screen.

Brooklyn is filled with emotionally powerful moments, most given additional heft by Ronan’s exquisitely sensitive performance. She has the added benefit of excellent material; Colm Tóibín’s acclaimed 2009 novel of the same title has been deftly adapted by Nick Hornby, an excellent novelist and screenwriter (About a Boy, An Education) with a strong sense of dialogue and interpersonal dynamics.

This is a gentle, simple tale: also an ironically timely one, given the current national — and international — furor regarding immigrants. Crowley and Hornby couldn’t have anticipated such real-world turbulence during production, and therefore cannot be credited (or blamed) for deliberately creating subtle advocacy cinema.

At the same time, it’s nice to be reminded of the American values that have made our “land of the free, home of the brave” such a cherished destination for so many people from throughout the world, and for so long.

Occasional cultural references pinpoint this story in 1952 and ’53. Eilis has spent her entire life in Enniscorthy; we meet her during a final shift at a local all-purpose shop run by Miss “Nettles” Kelly (Brid Brennan), a condescending harridan who clearly enjoys embarrassing her less refined customers.

Work is scarce throughout Ireland, and under ordinary circumstances Eilis’ prospects would be extremely limited. But she’s lucky; her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), with assistance from Catholic priests on both sides of the Atlantic, has arranged for Eilis to emigrate to Brooklyn, New York.

Departure is bittersweet at best; although Eilis is excited, the bond with her sister is strong, as is a shared concern for their somewhat frail and lonely mother (Jane Brennan), who never fully recovered from her husband’s death.

The ocean journey, though not without incident, is cleverly condensed by Hornby; it also sets up a “passing it forward” encounter that comes to fruition, quite poignantly, toward the end of the film.

Room: Claustrophobic chiller

Room (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

Tightly enclosed, confined-location dramas seem to have become a minor rage.

It may have started back in 2002, when Colin Farrell was trapped in Phone Booth. More recently, though, we’ve agonized while Ryan Reynolds tried to escape from an underground coffin, in Buried; and played invisible back-seat passenger while Tom Hardy spent 85 minutes in a car, in Locke.

Nothing goes to waste, in the tiny, isolated space that represents the entire universe for
Ma (Brie Larson) and young Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Thus, after gathering enough
egg shells, they naturally appoint their "home" with a decorative chain.
On a superficial level, Room would appear to belong in their company. But I actually wonder if scripter Emma Donoghue — who adapted her own best-selling 2010 novel — is familiar with Ray Bradbury’s similarly chilling “Jack-in-the-Box,” which debuted in the fantasy master’s 1947 short story collection Dark Carnival.

A few similarities are striking, but possibly coincidental. And Donoghue definitely takes her narrative into a vastly different direction, which is more in keeping with modern-day horrors. In fact, she acknowledges being inspired by the ghastly, real-life behavior of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man whose conduct was exposed in 2008. (Research at your own peril.)

Most striking, though, are the starring performances by Brie Larson and young Jacob Tremblay, who carry the first half of this disturbing tale almost entirely on their own. Dublin-born director Lenny Abrahamson draws quite intense performances from both, and Tremblay is particularly fine: thoroughly credible as a just-turned 5-year-old boy forced to experience the world — actually, “a” world — in a manner no child should have to endure.

A typical dawn awakens Jack (Tremblay), introduced in tight close-up as he quietly shrugs out of sheet and blanket; the camera pulls back to reveal that he shares the bed with his mother (Larson), whom he calls “Ma.” She rises, prepares breakfast, and we note the presence of the bed, a sink, a toilet, a bathtub, a wardrobe, table and chairs, and a rudimentary kitchen ... all in the same 11-by-11-foot space.

The morning progresses through various activities designed to keep Jack engaged. We take in Ma’s behavior: overly bright and cheerful, with an exaggerated enthusiasm that cannot fully conceal the weary, beaten resignation in her eyes. Details pile atop each other: the sallow complexions of these two people, the way in which Jack exhibits no curiosity about anything beyond these four walls...

...these four walls which are the extent of their entire universe.

Spotlight: The Fourth Estate Rules!

Spotlight (2015) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.20.15

Crusading newspaper journalists have been a cinema staple ever since the Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur stage play The Front Page first hit the big screen in 1931, but true classics are rare.

The Devil is in the details: Michael (Mark Ruffalo, center) and Sacha (Rachel McAdams)
grow increasingly excited — and horrified — as a fairly simple computer search by Matt
(Brian d'Arcy) reveals that they're likely dealing with far more than just five or six
pedophile priests.
Meet John Doe, The Big Carnival, Deadline USA and Absence of Malice come to mind, and they all have one thing in common: They’re fictitious stories.

Memorable films based on actual reporters who pursued real-world scoops are more scarce, in part because few screenwriters can spin compelling drama from the day-after-grinding-day research slog that precedes a “breaking” news story, which (to the outside world) seems to come out of nowhere. The gold standard in this category remains All the President’s Men, in great part due to screenwriter William Goldman’s superb, Oscar-winning adaptation of the Bob Woodward/Carl Bernstein book.

Goldman now has equally talented company: Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, who’ve done a masterful job with Spotlight — McCarthy also serving as director — and its depiction of the four Boston Globe reporters who won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for their astonishing series of stories exposing the long-term cover-up of child abuse by members of the Boston Catholic Church clergy.

As was the case with All the President’s Men, Spotlight isn’t merely an engaging — even suspenseful — drama, fueled by excellent performances from a well-selected ensemble cast; it’s a valuable historical document that details a frankly heinous abuse of trust and power. It’s simultaneously cathartic and horrific: a crisply condensed depiction of an extremely complicated story that expands so far beyond initial expectations, that — were it fiction — it likely wouldn’t be believed.

But it’s not fiction; it’s grim, infuriating and relentlessly heartbreaking fact.

Not to mention another reminder of the significant service performed by newspapers and their dedicated staffs, and the frankly alarming hole we’ll be in, as a country, if the Fourth Estate is allowed to be replaced by the frivolous, empty-calorie content of “web journalism” (an oxymoron if ever one existed).

McCarthy is an actor who burst on the filmmaking scene when he wrote and directed 2003’s The Station Agent, one of the finest, quirkiest dramedies of the new century. Singer has a wealth of TV scripting credits in his still-brief career, notably The West Wing and Fringe, and he made the jump to movies with the 2013 Julian Assange dramatization, The Fifth Estate.

Both McCarthy and Singer have an ear for realistic dialog, and particularly the careful “dance” that takes place during painfully raw and intimate conversations. This film is laden with such scenes — some quite difficult to watch — and all handled masterfully both by the film’s stars, and by lesser cast members appearing perhaps only briefly.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Suffragette: Solid emancipation drama

Suffragette (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and fleeting nudity

By Derrick Bang 

Had Carey Mulligan been born in a different time and place, she likely would have become popular among painters or photographers eager to explore the complexities of her amazingly expressive features.

After being arrested a second time, Maud (Carey Mulligan) is presented with a tempting
offer by Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson). He'll make the charges against her melt
away ... if she'll become his spy.
Her capacity for forlorn resignation — for tolerant anguish, and acceptance of a fate that she understands is unjust — is particularly acute. I imagine her becoming the face of Dorothea Lange’s iconic, Depression-era photo, Migrant Mother.

Mulligan has demonstrated this capacity for quietly compliant sorrow in several films, most notably 2010’s haunting Never Let Me Go, likely to remain one of the bleakest — and most cautionary — science fiction parables ever made. What makes her work in such parts so memorably heartbreaking, of course, is the perceptive intelligence that’s always present behind her melancholy gaze.

She once again displays such emotional intensity in yet another of this season’s cinematic depictions of our turbulent past: the desperate, early 20th century nadir of the British women’s emancipation movement, in director Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette. Scripter Abi Morgan — who won a well-deserved Emmy Award for her compelling Cold War-era miniseries, The Hour — has surrounded Mulligan’s composite “typical working-class character” with actual historical figures, to persuasively portray what it must have been like for the agitators determined to win not only the right to vote, but a greater measure of control over their own lives.

And dignity. Definitely dignity.

I never cease to be amazed — becoming immersed in real-life stories of this nature — by mankind’s ability to exceed even my lowest opinion of their behavior.

In this particular case, of course, the emphasize is on mankind.

The setting is London in 1912, where Maud Watts (Mulligan) and her husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), work onerous, back-breaking — and highly dangerous — hours in a laundry. The shop is run by Norman (Geoff Bell), a slimy, lecherous brute who could have stepped right out of a Dickens novel, and whose interest in Maud feels decidedly unhealthy: a dynamic that Sonny obviously notices, but apparently chooses to ignore.

Maud’s world shifts slightly when, heading home one day, she finds herself in the midst of a vandalizing protest by members of the Women’s Society and Political Union (WSPU). Shop windows are smashed; the perpetrators melt back into the crowd before the police arrive ... but not before Maud recognizes one of them, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), as a co-worker.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The 33: Buried beneath clichés

The 33 (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.13.15

The 2010 Copiapó mining accident, which trapped 33 men 2,300 feet underground after a catastrophic collapse within the 121-year-old copper-gold mine, is the stuff of legend: a tribute to heroism and indomitable human spirit, and a reminder that we are, indeed, capable of selflessly pulling together at times of extreme crisis.

As all of his fellow workers watch closely, Mario (Antonio Banderas, center) carefully
measures equal portions of their meager food supplies into 33 cups: the once-daily meal
that must sustain them all for as long as possible, while — they hope — rescue operations
proceed above ground.
It’s an incredible story, both in terms of what the men endured throughout their 69 days of captivity, and because of what took place on the surface, during what blossomed into an unprecedented world-wide effort to save them.

Sadly, director Patricia Riggen and her four (!) screenwriters fail to capture much of that drama in their oddly uninvolving film. Although their adaptation is based on Deep Down Dark — the best-selling account of the ordeal by Héctor Tobar, the only journalist granted access to the men and their families — this film is oddly shallow.

Despite a 127-minute running time, and some strong actors, we learn very little about most of these people; similarly, key details involving the above-ground rescue efforts are glossed over or omitted entirely.

Mostly, though, the film’s often larkish tone is simply wrong. Granted, tension can be maximized by occasional dollops of levity, but that’s a delicate balance, and Riggen makes hash of that recipe. Matters aren’t helped by an overly cheerful score from the late James Horner: a series of frivolous melodies that sound like the sort of hackneyed stuff that accompanied “south of the border sequences” in 1960s TV shows.

As the final score Horner completed before his untimely death in June, it’s an unfortunate postscript to an otherwise exemplary cinema legacy: This music too often trivializes these events.

We meet some of the primary characters during a typically jovial gathering, most of the miners and their families having bonded through their shared knowledge of this dangerous work. Mario Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas) is the respected family man, with a doting wife and teenage daughter; Álex Vega (Mario Casas), a skilled young mechanic, chooses to work the mine because the pay is better, and thus offers greater promise to the life he wishes to build with his pregnant wife, Jessica (Cote de Pablo).

Luis “Don Lucho” Urzua (Lou Diamond Phillips), the shift supervisor, has long waged bitter arguments with mining company managers who ignore mounting evidence of the mine’s growing instability. Edison Peña (Jacob Vargas) is the token goofball and wannabe Elvis impersonator; Yonni Barrios (Oscar Nuñez) blatantly juggles a wife (Adrianna Barazza) and mistress (Elizabeth de Rasso) who live within shouting distance of each other.

Friday, November 6, 2015

SPECTRE: Return of the über-villain

SPECTRE (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for action violence and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.6.15

This likely is obvious, but it bears mention anyway: Christoph Waltz was born to be a Bond villain.

That chilling insouciance. That monomaniacal smile. That calm air of authority and indifference. The utter certainty that nothing — and nobody — could stand in his way.

After having knocked Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) almost senseless, the unstoppable Hinx
(Dave Bautista, center) does his best to batter Bond (Daniel Craig) and hurl him to his
death from a speeding train.
Waltz’s Oberhauser is sinister.

His interrogation/torture scene here with Daniel Craig’s James Bond is the best — the most memorably macabre — since Auric Goldfinger responded to Sean Connery’s nervous “Do you expect me to talk?” with a mildly vexed “No, Mr. Bond; I expect you to die!”

SPECTRE represents the fruition of simmering narrative plans that have been in play since the Bond franchise was so cleverly re-booted with Craig’s introduction, in 2006’s Casino Royale. The tip-off comes during this new film’s opening credits, as fleeting glimpses of characters from the previous three films waft in and out of Daniel Kleinman’s sleek and sexy visuals.

(Just in passing, Kleinman finally nailed the tone established by the masterful title sequences designed and choreographed so well by the late, great Maurice Binder. The main difference: Kleinman’s are creepier. Which isn’t a bad thing.)

With respect to foreshadowing, longtime fans know that we’ve been here before. Connery’s Bond spent several films dealing with villains set into motion by a  Machiavellian figure silhouetted at the head of an enormous boardroom table, recognized only by the fluffy white cat snuggled into his lap.

Indeed, an early scene in SPECTRE knowingly references just such a sequence from 1965’s Thunderball ... although this update has a more tempestuous outcome.

But that’s getting ahead of things.

The Peanuts Movie: Good grief!

The Peanuts Movie (2015) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated G, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.6.15

It’s truly amazing.

Philippe Petit’s 1974 wire-walk between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers notwithstanding, The Peanuts Movie is the best balancing act I’ve ever seen: an unerringly precise blend of Charles M. Schulz’s gentle, four-panel elegance with the high-spirited vitality of 21st century computer animation.

Lucy, far right, is disgusted when, after Charlie Brown's reputation takes a sudden upswing,
most of their classmates decide to imitate his "recipe for success."
It’s impossible to imagine the discussions, conferences, impassioned arguments and frustrated hair-pulling that must have taken place behind the scenes — Schulz’s family and artistic guardians on one side, Blue Sky Studios and 20th Century Fox on the other — in order to deliver this miracle baby. One false step at any of scores of moments in the finished film, and the result would have failed to satisfy either camp.

But miracle it is, with the lion’s share of credit going to director Steve Martino, scripters Craig Schulz, Bryan Schulz and Cornelius Uliano, and vice president of 20th Century Fox Animation Ralph Millero. They, in turn, are quick to acknowledge the massive Blue Sky team that embraced the challenge of wholly inhabiting Charles Schulz’s Peanuts “atmosphere,” in order to faithfully adapt it for the sensibilities of modern moviegoers.

This film will live forever. Most immediately, though, it will create a whole new generation of fans.

Full disclosure demands an acknowledgment that I’m far from impartial, as a perusal of my publishing CV will reveal. If anything, though, that makes me hyper-critical, because I count myself among those devoted to preserving Charles Schulz’s role in the creation that has grown far, far larger than the humble newspaper medium that gave it birth.

I take second place to nobody, for example, when it comes to the fan-frenzy that erupted during television’s original run of Star Trek, and the excitement with which I greeted the initial news of the show’s first big-screen adaptation. But that didn’t stop me from ripping into the result — 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion(less) Picture — and branding it a leaden, overwrought stiff. (To this day, I’ve never gotten more hate mail for a single review.)

My razors thus were sharpened, my thesaurus of vitriolic adjectives at the ready, as “The Peanuts Movie” came ever closer to release.

The sword remains sheathed, thesaurus tossed aside.

What’s not to love?