Friday, August 26, 2016

Hands of Stone: Packs a punch

Hands of Stone (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, nudity, sexual content and strong sports violence

By Derrick Bang

Some sports champions, talent notwithstanding, make themselves very difficult to admire.

Ryan Lochte immediately comes to mind. And Dennis Rodman. And, sadly, more than a few others.

Although Roberto Durán (Edgar Ramírez, right) would rather charge into the ring and
bludgeon his opponent into submission, veteran trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro)
cautions patience, and emphasizes the need for strategy.
Writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Hands of Stone profiles another such individual: Roberto Durán, widely acknowledged as one of the world’s all-time greatest boxers. As Jakubowicz’s script suggests, Durán’s skills in the ring couldn’t entirely offset an aggressive, unpleasantly confrontational personality that resulted from a chip on his shoulder the size of Pennsylvania.

Certainly he had cause, growing up in Panama in the 1950s and early ’60s, at a time when U.S./Panamanian tensions over ownership of the Canal Zone resulted in rioting, military intervention and nasty international squabbling. Abandoned by his father — an American marine who had an affair with a local girl — and essentially raised on the streets, Durán couldn’t help hating the Americans whom he perceived as thuggish invaders.

All of which makes his eventual alliance with legendary American trainer Ray Arcel even more fascinating.

Jakubowicz’s film is an engaging sports drama anchored by two strong starring performances. The narrative is fairly predictable — insofar as anything about Durán was predictable — and Jakubowicz’s handling is solid, if unremarkable. The fight choreography, however, is stunning. Paula Fairfield’s sound design is particularly effective; rarely have cinematic punches been staged so persuasively, or sounded so brutal.

On a much lighter note, we can’t help smiling over the serendipitous casting. Robert De Niro has come full circle: After winning an Academy Award for his portrayal of boxer Jake La Motta, in 1981’s Raging Bull, he’ll very likely garner an Oscar nod for this performance as Arcel.

Jakubowicz cleverly sets up a bit of parallel structure between Durán (Edgar Ramírez) and Arcel, since both men had to overcome dangerous challenges. Durán’s mere survival during childhood was a major accomplishment, along with the luck that propelled him into a talented neighborhood trainer’s hands.

Humpback Whales 3D: Awe-inspiring

Humpback Whales 3D (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.26.16

In a film laden with captivating facts — an impressive number of them, for a documentary that runs only 40 minutes — none is more unexpected than the revelation that the world’s attitude about whale-hunting was changed, almost overnight, by ... a record album.

Call it the world's most impressive belly-flop: Few things are more breathtaking than the
sight of a 55-foot, 50-ton whale propelling its massive body almost entirely out of the
water, in order to slap back onto the surface, accompanied by a thwomp with the
volume of a sonic boom.
1970’s Songs of the Humpback Whale, produced by biologist and environmentalist Roger Payne, culminated his three-year study of songs and vocalizations among these mighty ocean mammals. It became the best-selling environmental album in history, sharing not only the majestic beauty of these oddly melodic sounds, but proving that they represented a complex means of communication.

The subsequent “Save the Whales” movement, galvanized by this “discovery” of highly evolved whale culture, resulted in the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment’s global moratorium on commercial whaling (observed to this day by all but three countries: Japan, Iceland and Norway).

That’s an impressive result, for a rather unusual pop LP.

These magnificent creatures are celebrated in the MacGillivray Freeman IMAX documentary, Humpback Whales: a gorgeously filmed production with all the hallmarks of previous efforts such as Grand Canyon Adventure, Dolphins, Coral Reef Adventure and many others. Indeed, MacGillivray Freeman productions have long been the crown jewels of IMAX nature documentaries, and this one’s no exception.

Director Greg MacGillivray and his team of giant-screen cinematographers patiently recorded humpback behavior and migrations in the waters off Alaska, Hawaii and most particularly the remote islands of Tonga, which has enjoyed its own success with a local whale restoration program. Via commentary given just the right degree of reverence and Scottish lilt by off-camera narrator Ewan McGregor, we learn why humpbacks “perform” these diverse and haunting songs, and why they migrate up to 10,000 miles, round-trip, every year.

The always amazing footage is given greater dramatic heft by composer Steve Wood’s exhilarating score, which mixes humpback songs with an orchestral blend of piano, synthesized sounds and the energetic themes of Canadian folk guitarist Calum Graham. Wood also choreographs several sequences to the rousing 2014 pop anthem “Best Day of My Life,” which echoes the irrepressible bliss that we can’t help experiencing, while watching the humpbacks whirl, twirl and leap with abandon.

Needless to say, MacGillivray gives us plenty of “money shots” of these 55-foot, 50-ton, unexpectedly acrobatic animals propelling their massive bodies almost entirely out of the water, in order to slap back onto the surface, accompanied by a thwomp with the volume of a sonic boom.

Such scenes are awe-inspiring, to say the least.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Hell or High Water: Superlative crime saga

Hell or High Water (2016) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated R, for strong violence, profanity and fleeting sexuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.19.16

Most films are lucky if they successfully deliver compelling drama or perceptive social commentary. Very few do both at the same time.

This is one of the rare ones.

After a bank robbery doesn't go quite according to plan, Toby (Chris Pine, left) and his
brother Tanner (Ben Foster) contemplate their next move. The options are limited, and
time is running out...
Hell or High Water is the finest contemporary drama thus far in a year that has produced few American films of substance. Director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) deliver a taut crime thriller that’s also a shattering indictment of contemporary economic malaise, and the lingering havoc wrought by the 2007-8 subprime mortgage crisis.

The film is beautifully mounted and superbly acted by all four leads. Sheridan is equally adept at absorbing narrative and engaging character dynamics, along with having a great ear for the gently snarky banter that often bonds men who seem distant and crusty on the surface, but in fact deeply respect each other.

The resulting atmosphere is fascinating for its complexity: We don’t often encounter films that manage to be quite funny at times, while simultaneously enveloping us in an uneasy atmosphere of impending disaster. Grim portent hovers over these characters, like an ink-black thunderstorm visible on the horizon, and approaching inexorably.

In many ways, this film looks, sounds and feels like the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men; it certainly paints a similarly bleak portrait of the depressed regions of modern-day Texas. But that 2007 thriller depended (to a degree) on grotesques, in order to advance its story; you’ll find no monsters here, along the lines of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh.

No, the protagonists in Hell or High Water are painfully familiar, and that’s what makes this saga so heartbreaking: We know these guys. They’re the ones who live in the dilapidated house down the street, with the unkempt yard and dead vehicle(s). They hang around too much because employment has been spotty, and they’re always scrambling to remain one bank payment ahead of foreclosure.

Sheridan sets his story in West Texas, where the distinction between honest men and reluctant outlaws has blurred beyond recognition. We meet brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), guns drawn and faces concealed by masks, as they rob a tiny branch of the Midland Bank, terrorizing the two lone employees in the process. The boys are careful, taking only loose, small-denomination bills and avoiding the bundled larger bills with the explosive dye packs.

They roar away in a battered sedan, Tanner exhilarated by the adrenaline rush, the quieter Toby chastened by what they’ve just done. Their getaway takes them past foreclosed homes, shuttered businesses and countless billboards advertising payday loans; cinematographer Giles Nuttgens gives these surroundings the stark, washed-out look of cheap paint peeled away by too many seasons of blazing hot sunlight.

Then, later that same morning, they do it again ... at another small-town branch of the Midland Bank.

Kubo and the Two Strings: An enchanting fable

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for dramatic intensity and scary moments

By Derrick Bang

It’s extraordinarily difficult to replicate the look, atmosphere and ambiance of an entirely difficult culture, and yet the Oregon-based Laika animation studio has done just that, with Kubo and the Two Strings.

With a rather large monster preparing to stomp and/or devour them, Kubo is stunned into
temporary immobility. Fortunately, Monkey and Beetle are better prepared for action ... as
also is true of the tiny origami samurai warrior perched on Kubo's shoulder.
Director Travis Knight and a trio of writers — Shannon Tindle, Marc Haimes and Chris Butler — have concocted what feels like an authentic Japanese folk tale, laced with fantastic characters and a little boy who is, himself, a purveyor of stories. The stop-motion animation style will be recognized by fans who adored previous Laika efforts, such as Coraline and ParaNorman, but in this case with an added twist: This new film’s look is inspired by origami and classic Japanese woodblock printing.

The action takes place in a colorful realm of rough-hewn sawtooth patterns, strong linear striations and bold but simple colors, all inspired by the work of woodblock masters such as Kiyoshi Saito and Katsushika Hokusai. The resulting texture — the apparent “feel” of the images — is truly lovely, and unlike anything else we’ve seen from today’s panoply of animation studios.

But of course style cannot be paramount; it must serve the story. That’s absolutely the case here, as we quickly become immersed in an otherworldly narrative with the mythic authenticity of a Hayao Miyazaki fable.

“If you must blink, do it now,” we’re cautioned, as this saga begins. “If you look away, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.”

Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a popular street urchin who lives near a fishing village in ancient Japan, and survives by enchanting townspeople with wild tales of samurai warriors and mythical creatures, all brought to life via origami figures created magically when he plays a guitar-like shamisen. The coins collected are sufficient to buy food and meager supplies for both Kubo and his mother; they live in a cave on a high cliff that overlooks the vast ocean.

Kubo’s mother slips in and out of awareness, suffering from trances that are governed by the rising and setting of the moon. This condition has persisted ever since the perilous ocean journey that brought her and the then-infant Kubo to this land. Worse yet, the boy is missing his left eye, the orb — we’re told — having been plucked out by his grandfather, the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).

During her cognizant moments, Kubo’s mother speaks lovingly of her absent husband, a warrior who lost his life defending his family from the Moon King. And more than anything else, she cautions, Kubo must never, ever linger outside after dark.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins: Pitch (im)perfect

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and needlessly, for fleeting suggestive content

By Derrick Bang

It may be Meryl Streep’s movie, but Simon Helberg very nearly steals the show.

Newly hired piano accompanist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg, far left) is about to get a
shock, when Florence (Meryl Streep) — under the "guidance" of toadying vocal coach
Carlo Edwards (David Haig, far right) — begins to rehearse an operatic aria. Florence's
constant companion, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), beams indulgently.
Streep delivers another bravura star turn as Florence Foster Jenkins, a truly American original who dominated a slice of New York’s aristocratic music scene from the early 1920s until just before the end of World War II. Had she been content to remain a mere patron of the arts, it’s entirely possible that performance venues — even to this day — would bear her name.

But Jenkins also fancied herself an operatic diva, despite having virtually no sense of rhythm or timing, and possessing a truly lamentable voice that was incapable of pitch or sustained notes. None of this bothered her — indeed, all indications suggest that she wasn’t aware (or simply refused to acknowledge) her deficiencies — and she took pains to ensure that her intimate recitals were attended solely by friends and hand-picked sycophants.

Occasional published “reviews,” appearing solely in small newspapers or obscure music publications, were no more than obsequious puff pieces (which, in at least some cases, she reportedly wrote herself).

But the charade — if that’s even the proper term — came to an abrupt end on Oct. 25, 1944, when Jenkins gave her one and only public performance at no less than Carnegie Hall. That event, along with a handful of 78-RPM records she made for the Melotone label, forever defined Jenkins’ life and career.

While the results could be labeled as tragic or just desserts for unmitigated hubris, director Stephen Frears and scripter Nicholas Martin obviously didn’t see it that way. Their buoyant study of Jenkins is giddy, hilarious and unexpectedly poignant: a deferential depiction of a free spirit who marched to the beat of her own drummer (if seldom in time).

Streep’s portrayal emphasizes vulnerability and fragility to a degree that seems at odds with established fact, but it does serve to make Jenkins more sympathetic. Mostly, though, Streep revels in this flamboyant, outsized role to a degree than Jenkins herself would have recognized and encouraged. Streep is loud, brash, stubbornly ambitious and utterly clueless ... the latter Jenkins’ defining characteristic.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Pete's Dragon: A somewhat unsteady flight

Pete's Dragon (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.12.16

All right; there’s such a thing as too much pathos.

Disney films have a merciless Dickensian history of parental mortality, usually as a means of first-act dramatic impact. The trend goes all the way back to 1942’s Bambi, and has remained a scripting constant ever since, reaching its horrific nadir with 1985’s Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. (I still wince over how that one started.)

Having grown up in a remote forest, with only a massive green dragon for a friend,
Pete (Oakes Fegley) knows a life of nothing but fun. Alas, that's about to change, when
he and his huge furry buddy are "discovered" by people.
In some ways, this new Pete’s Dragon is even more brutal.

On the whole, director David Lowery has done a lovely job with this updated fairy tale, giving it a contemporary, top-to-bottom re-write with the assistance of co-scripter Toby Halbrooks. The fantasy elements are impressive, with the fuzzy green dragon — Elliot — not only brought to persuasive life, but also given a charming, shaggy dog personality: not an easy task, for a character that cannot speak.

Much of the film also takes place from a child’s-eye view of the world, which is a nice touch.

The storyline has a gentle environmental undertone that’s given additional heft by the presence of Robert Redford, both as co-star and occasional narrator. His distinctive voice is immediately familiar, with its warm and friendly cadence; at this point in his career, he has become everybody’s favorite uncle, while also radiating the graceful ecological integrity of icons such as John Ruskin, John Muir and Henry David Thoreau.

He’s perfect here.

On the other hand, this film’s tone is far different than its larkish 1977 predecessor. Poster art for this new Pete’s Dragon shows our young human hero — a sensitively nuanced Oakes Fegley — resting peacefully on Elliot’s huge tail, smiling up at his furry green friend. The implication is happy and cheerful, which is extremely misleading.

Because, before Pete can befriend a massive dragon that has remained (mostly) undiscovered in the deep woods of the Pacific Northwest, he must lose his parents. This takes place during a prologue that introduces Pete as barely more than a toddler, driving through the woods with his parents, and excited by the thought of a “family adventure.”

That anticipation is shattered one road accident later. Although Lowery deserves credit for handling this sequence with off-camera sensitivity, it’s no less heartbreaking ... and it also sets the mood for what follows. And while the subsequent narrative is by no means nonstop tragedy, it feels that way, in great part because of composer Daniel Hart’s unrelentingly gloomy orchestral score. Sad and maudlin themes undercut far too much of this film’s action.

(Just in passing, Lowery and Halbrooks also deserve to be spanked for the immediate peril that prompts the nearby Elliot to rescue little Pete: Wolves don’t attack people! A bear would have been a far better choice.)

Anthropoid: Grim, fact-based war drama

Anthropoid (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

Terrible title, taut thriller.

And historical authenticity doesn’t necessarily justify the choice. Nor does historical authenticity conceal another issue.

Having parachuted into Czechoslovakia only the night before, Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan,
left) a
nd Josef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) steal a truck in order to reach Prague, where they are to
link up with resistance fighters
To cite another recent example ... despite the care with which 2000’s The Perfect Storm was assembled, I couldn’t overcome the core paradox:

Sebastian Junger’s book — and, thus, William D. Wittliff’s screenplay — were based on an actual event that left no survivors. Ergo, everything we watched was no more than an educated presumption of what actually happened: a narrative conceit that can’t help pulling us out of the story at every significant juncture.

This is never a problem with dramatic fiction, which allows us to simply go with the flow; we accept the saga on its own merits. But no matter how persuasively George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg delivered their dialogue — no matter how heroically they behaved — it was impossible to accept things at face value. Were the men in question really that brave? Actually that selfless?

Similar questions emerge during the course of Anthropoid, director Sean Ellis’ often gripping account of a World War II incident that forever changed the fate of Czechoslovakia, and quite likely altered the direction of the entire war. Ellis and co-writer Anthony Frewin have developed their script from what is known about “Operation Anthropoid,” and while the clandestine mission’s preparation and outcome are the stuff of recorded history, much of this storyline can’t be any better than speculation.

Whether that’s vexing enough to be an issue, will be up to the individual viewer. It’s easy to imagine that things may have gone down this way, and that might be sufficient. Ellis certainly draws persuasive performances from most of his cast — with one unfortunate exception — and there’s no denying the suspenseful nobility inherent in WWII resistance fighters who risked everything to thwart Nazi advances.

The film begins in December 1941, three years after the Allies’ notorious “Munich Agreement”: the act of appeasement that passively allowed Hitler to take over Czechoslovakia without a shot being fired. Two soldiers from the London-based Czechoslovakian army-in-exile — Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan) and Josef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) — parachute back into their occupied homeland, and carefully make their way to the few individuals who remain in the underground resistance.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Suicide Squad: Great premise, uneven execution

Suicide Squad (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, dramatic intensity, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.5.16

E.M. Nathanson deserves the credit, and nobody has the faintest idea who he is.

He wrote the best-selling 1965 WWII thriller, The Dirty Dozen, which director Robert Aldrich turned into a crackling action film two years later. With the template firmly established — that of disgraced convict soldiers sent on a suicide mission, with the promise of commuted sentences for any survivors — numerous books and films have “borrowed” the premise, often to crowd-pleasing results.

Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, center top) has his hands full, trying to control the behavior
of his misfit squad: clockwise from upper right, Deadshot (Will Smith), Captain Boomerang
(Jai Courtney), Katana (Karen Fukuhara), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Killer Croc
(Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje)
Those crowds include comic book readers, particularly with the 2007 re-boot of this concept in DC’s Superman universe.

And why not? Bad guys always get the best lines, and there’s no questioning the vicarious thrill of watching villains allowed to behave reprehensibly.

As one of this new film’s characters impertinently explains, following a minor transgression: “We’re bad guys. It’s what we do.”

The audaciously irreverent big-screen adaptation of Suicide Squad has plenty of snarky allure, in great part thanks to Margot Robbie’s captivating star turn as the sexy, salacious and gleefully homicidal Harley Quinn. As any longtime comic book fan will attest, Robbie nails the character, with all of her cherubic, psychopathic charisma. Harley revels in her over-the-top awfulness, and Robbie embraces the role with lustful fury.

Comic book movies very rarely get remembered by Academy voters, but this one should; Robbie’s performance here makes the movie.

She gets a strong assist from Will Smith, doing an equally fine job with the more difficult role of Floyd Lawton, better known as ace assassin Deadshot. Most of the time, Lawton has no problem with killing at the behest of the highest bidder, but he hates being viewed in a negative light by his estranged but still devoted adolescent daughter, Zoe (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon, touching in a brief performance).

Smith, as a result, must navigate the more delicate waters of a conflicted soul: a bad guy who might possess a shred of nobility.

But we’re getting ahead of things. To the plot:

As the next installment in DC movie continuity, Suicide Squad — directed and scripted by David Ayer — takes place in the aftermath of early spring’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, which concluded as Big Blue was dealt a mortal blow by a Kryptonite spear. The U.S. government, in something of a panic, worries how a world without Superman could defeat the next hyper-powered adversary.