Friday, January 27, 2017

A Dog's Purpose: Sit and stay for this one!

A Dog's Purpose (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.27.17

If this film doesn’t tug at the ol’ heartstrings, you’ve no business calling yourself human.

W. Bruce Cameron’s 2010 novel spent just shy of a year on the New York Times bestseller list, and — if released back in the day, when movies hung around for more than two or three weeks — this big-screen adaptation likely would have done the same. Even so, it’s a welcome bright spot in the January doldrums dominated (as usual) by stinkers held over from the previous year.

Ethan (Bruce Gheisar) and his new dog Bailey quickly become inseparable, the latter
finding this boy — his boy — the perfect "guide" for how best to maneuver through a
world of people, and their confusing, often peculiar behavior.
That said, the book’s fans may be a bit surprised. Although Cameron worked on the screenplay — assisted by Cathryn Michon, Audrey Wells and Maya Forbes — significant liberties have been taken with his original narrative. But that’s part of the book’s magic: The premise easily lends itself to manipulation, and as long as the crucial plot elements are retained — which they have been — the result is no less beguiling.

On top of which, Swedish director Lasse Hallström is precisely the right talent for this adaptation. Looking back over his glorious career, I see that he has helmed many films that continue to rank among my favorites: My Life As a Dog, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules and Chocolat, up to the under-appreciated Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Hallström has a thoughtful, sensitive touch that ensures the successful delivery of poignant material, without slopping over into overly sentimental treacle.

Make no mistake: His new film is boldly, unapologetically manipulative. But Hallström’s handling is so gentle, and the premise so irresistible, that we forgive such calculation.

On top of which, A Dog’s Purpose also benefits from sensational narrative work by Josh Gad, who voices the canine protagonist throughout its many lives. An entire generation will forever remember Gad as the voice of Olaf the snowman, from Frozen, but — as this film demonstrates anew — his expressive talents are so much greater than that one role.

The wrong voice, the slightest false line reading, could have ruined everything, but Gad never misses an emotional note. He imbues this canine character with just the right blend of playfulness, confusion (over “weird” human behavior), instinctive devotion, and the sense of wonder that belongs solely to trusting, innocent beings.

Cameron’s core premise — the story’s gimmick — is that a single canine soul endures through a series of dog bodies, remembering the experiences from each of its lives. All the while, it wonders why it has been graced with a place in our world, and — as the title suggests — what its purpose might be.

The first round is abruptly, shatteringly brief: Hallström signaling, right from the start, that this tail-wagging tale won’t be all sweetness and light. The next round initially seems similarly dire, until unexpected rescue: Thus, 8-year-old Ethan Montgomery (Bryce Gheisar) becomes the owner of a rambunctious Golden Retriever puppy. Ethan’s mother (Juliet Rylance) couldn’t be happier; his tightly wound father (Luke Kirby) ... not so much.

Gold: 18 karat at best

Gold (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for sexuality, nudity and considerable profanity

By Derrick Bang

This story has more ups and downs than a merry-go-round ... and, like such amusement park attractions, any semblance of an actual destination is mere illusion.

On the triumphant day that his company is admitted to the New York Stock Exchange,
Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey, fist raised) jubilantly kicks off the morning trading,
accompanied by girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) and partner Mike Acosta (Edgar
Ramírez, far left).
Gold is inspired, and quite accurately, by the 1997 Bre-X Minerals Ltd. mining and stock fraud, which — in the wake of the company’s collapse — became (and remains) one of Canada’s largest and most embarrassing stock frauds, and history’s largest-ever mining scandal.

And all because “gold fever” blinded far too many people to the most obvious set of checks and balances.

Scripters Patrick Massett and John Zinman have changed names and moved the primary players from Canada to the States. Even so, they follow events closely enough to raise eyebrows over their failure to acknowledge two published accounts of the catastrophe — The Bre-X Fraud and Fool’s Gold: The Making of a Global Market Fraud — that must have served as primary sources.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Kenny Wells, the third-generation face of Washoe Mining, a family business based in Reno, Nev. A prospector at heart, Kenny believes strongly in lineage, and loves to wax eloquent about the grandfather who founded the company with hard work and dirt under his fingers. But the story inevitably sounds rehearsed and greased with a layer of snake oil, particularly when he’s trying to charm investors.

Kenny also supplies occasional off-camera narration to us viewers, to bridge time-shifts and plot gaps, but McConaughey’s voice has the distinct aroma of self-justification. It’s clear, pretty quickly, that Kenny probably isn’t a reliable narrator; he may relate details accurately, but his complicity is open to serious question.

We meet him during a comfortable period, as primary hustler for the company that his father still runs. Daytime work is dominated by telephone pitches and the careful scrutiny of geological surveys; hard-drinking evenings take place in the tavern where Kenny’s longtime girlfriend, Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard), works as a waitress.

They’re an unlikely but comfortably matched couple. She loves him unconditionally, having made peace with his almost religious pursuit of dreams. He, in turn, relies on her stability and support; she grounds him. Decked out in 1980s-style big hair, and poured into the tight outfits with which waitresses have long enhanced their tips, Howard is the pluperfect working gal who adores her man.

The glow in her eyes is palpable, whenever Kenny is around: We hope that he’ll never abuse her loyalty.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Split: This uneven thriller should do just that

Split (2016) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, and rather generously, for dramatic intensity, violence and gruesome behavior

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.20.17

Color me surprised.

Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s newest little shocker truly is a cut (or chomp) above his other recent efforts.

While Marcia (Jessica Sula, left) and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) watch nervously in the
background, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) attempts to persuade their captor's (James McAvoy)
youngest personality to help them escape from his other, more vicious selves.
But since we’re talking about the guy responsible for Lady in the Water (unrelentingly silly), After Earth (jaw-droppingly awful), The Visit (utterly repulsive) and The Last Airbender (quite possibly the worst mainstream fantasy ever made) ... that’s damning with very faint praise.

It must be difficult to hit a stadium-clearing home run the first time at bat — as with, say, Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) and John Carpenter (Halloween) — and then spend the rest of a steadily declining career trying to top, or even match, that first triumph. Pursuing that rainbow destroyed Welles, and has turned Carpenter into a pathetic remnant of his former self. (Anybody remember Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Prince of Darkness or Ghosts of Mars?)

Thus, pity poor Shyamalan, forever toiling in the shadow of The Sixth Sense.

Since then, he has demonstrated an unerring knack for concocting an intriguing premise, failing to exploit it credibly, and then flushing away any marginal good will during a bonkers-ludicrous third act.

Split follows that pattern; its modestly saving graces are a better-than-usual starting point, and a bravura performance from his leading man. (Or should I say performances?)

Shyamalan wastes no time, opening with a frighteningly credible kidnap scenario that leaves high school teenagers Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) at the mercy of an eerily calm guy (James McAvoy) with a shaved head and military bearing. The girls wake up in a basement cell, albeit one appointed with an unexpectedly clean and polished bathroom.

Claire and Marcia, best buds, are among the most popular girls at school; Casey is the quiet outcast everybody whispers about. Thus, the savage separation of status prevents the trio from bonding into a proper team (a shrewd psychological handicap).

Their captor’s various tics include an obsessive/compulsive fixation on neatness; he’s also a sexual deviant, as evidenced by a brief but distasteful encounter with Marcia (mercifully left off-camera).

Friday, January 13, 2017

Patriots Day: Triumph snatched from tragedy

Patriots Day (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for graphic violence, frequent profanity and some drug use

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.13.17

It seemed too soon.

Mounting a big-screen project based on a recent real-world tragedy carries the whiff of tawdry, opportunistic network TV movies, which almost always exploit such events in pursuit of viewership ratings.

As FBI Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon, left) and Boston Police Commissioner
Ed Davis (John Goodman, right) watch hopefully, veteran policeman Tommy Saunders
(Mark Wahlberg) scrutinizes area surveillance footage, trying to anticipate which
cameras had the best chance of recording a glimpse of the bombers.
Not quite four years have passed, since the Boston Marathon bombing. Transforming that ghastly — albeit, ultimately, victoriously bonding — crisis into a high-profile mainstream drama, this quickly, couldn’t help raising eyebrows.

Ah, but I should have trusted director/co-scripter Peter Berg. He demonstrated appropriate restraint and respect, while crafting last year’s Deepwater Horizon into a solid suspense drama, and the same is true here. Although he rather shamelessly yanks our tear ducts in the final few minutes, supplying on-camera interviews with the actual people depicted in the preceding film, by that point Berg has earned enough good will to get away with it.

And besides: The interviews are cathartic, and well deserved in their own right.

Berg and his four co-scripters wisely designed their film as a straight-ahead police procedural, emphasizing dogged, ground-level detective work — and, eventually, indispensable public support — while carefully handling the actual bombings. The result is a tribute to both the impressive resources brought to bear, in the aftermath, and the stirring “Boston Strong” solidarity that united the first-responders and investigative entities.

Events begin on April 14, 2013, the day before the marathon; onscreen time and location stamps introduce a wide variety of individuals soon to be linked by circumstance. Some are immediately recognized by name and/or reputation: Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (played here by John Goodman), FBI agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), and marathon watchers Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensky (Christopher O’Shea and Rachel Brosnahan).

A few others are likely to remain a mystery, at first, to all but those who followed every detail of the unfolding situation, back in 2013: MIT policeman Sean A. Collier (Jake Picking), and Chinese-American college student Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang).

These preliminary sequences are casual, even light-hearted: Patrick tries to teach his wife Jessica how to speak with a proper Boston accent; Collier flirts with a couple of university women, trying to cajole them into joining him at an upcoming concert; Meng explains the virtues of a newly designed delivery app to a potential investor.

Live by Night: Not very lively

Live by Night (2016) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated R, for strong violence, profanity and occasional sexuality

By Derrick Bang

Dennis Lehane’s Live By Night is a huge, Prohibition-era crime epic that deservedly won the 2013 Edgar Award for novel of the year, its 432 pages charting mobster Joe Coughlin’s rise to power from Boston to Florida, and ultimately to Cuba.

Filmmaker Ben Affleck’s big-screen adaptation is a maddeningly pale shadow of the book.

Shortly after arriving in Florida's Ybor City, Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck, center) and his
right-hand man Dion (Chris Messina, left) pay a "courtesy call" on Chief of Police Figgis
(Chris Cooper), who patiently explains what he is — and isn't — willing to turn a
blind eye to.
Affleck clearly bit off more than he could chew, aggressively assuming the roles of not only director and star, but also co-producer and — here’s the problem — screenwriter. His approach to Lehane’s sprawling novel is a series of disconnected sequences linked by voice-over narration: a clumsy abridgment that too frequently feels as if we’re being told the story, rather than experiencing it.

The result plays like 128 minutes of random chunks from a 10-hour miniseries (and, it should be noted, Lehane’s novel probably deserved that sort of long-form treatment). The tragic consequence: Affleck has made Lehane’s enthralling narrative boring.

The story’s moral focus concerns the corruptible power of evil, and whether a larcenous but essentially kind-hearted individual can remain “good” among companions who respect only ruthless behavior. It’s a venerable character arc that dates back to early Hollywood crime dramas, interpreted by scores of film stars ... most of whom did so far more persuasively.

Nuanced acting never has been Affleck’s strong suit, and his character’s handling of what should be a series of soul-deadening, increasingly agonized choices too frequently looks like bland, unsmiling indifference.

Coughlin is this story’s hero — or, more accurately, anti-hero — and we’re clearly intended to feel for the guy. We don’t.

Indeed, Affleck — as director and scripter — makes a fatal mistake: Coughlin is by no means the most interesting character in this story ... but he should be. While it was smart to populate the film with a host of powerful, scene-stealing co-stars, Affleck’s performance pales by comparison.

Friday, January 6, 2017

A Monster Calls: An enchanting fable

A Monster Calls (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and scary images

By Derrick Bang

Some children’s books — even incredibly popular ones — are structured in a way that resists big-screen adaptation.

As Conor (Lewis MacDougall) grows more concerned about his mother's increasingly
frail condition, the visits from a parable-spinning monster become more serious,
intense ... and dangerous.
(Consider, as one of the most famous examples, how much time has passed since Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time debuted back in 1963. We finally have an adaptation scheduled for release in the spring of 2018.)

A Monster Calls was published in 2011; the illustrated children’s novel — story by Patrick Ness, art by Jim Kay — went on to win Britain’s prestigious Carnegie and Greenaway medals. It’s a poignant, deeply thoughtful and at times elliptical fantasy about a boy working his way through extreme grief; as such, it’s also an instructive and extremely clever parable for readers seeking similar solace.

The book has a sobering back-story, having been conceived by British author Siobhan Dowd during her unsuccessful battle against breast cancer. She died before being able to write it; her editor passed Dowd’s notes along to Ness.

It’s a sensitive and delicate tale, enhanced in great part by Kay’s often ragged — but always beautiful — black-and-white illustrations. The mere attempt to bring such a story to the big screen is audacious; that director J.A. Bayona has done such an exemplary job, with Ness adapting his own book, is nothing short of remarkable.

We meet 13-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall, in a sublime starring debut) as he wakens from what obviously has become a recurring dream: one in which the landscape surrounding his home is rent asunder, and he’s unable to save his terrified mother (Felicity Jones) from falling into a bottomless pit. Conor always wakens just as he loses his grip on her clutching hand.

As a typical day then begins, we note unusual independence: Conor makes his own breakfast, which he eats alone; he runs a load of wash and dresses for school. In the background, at one point, we hear a feeble, deeply congested cough. The inference is easy.

School, sadly, is its own waking nightmare. Although isolated at the rear of his various classrooms — teachers giving him a wide berth, making allowances for his solemn failure to participate — Conor nonetheless is an ongoing target of the sadistically cruel school bully, Harry (James Melville, impressively nasty). Then it’s back home, where his mother, wan but feigning cheer, is up and about. They share a movie, but she’s unable to stay awake to the conclusion.

Hidden Figures: The female frontier

Hidden Figures (2016) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.6.17

A film that moves its audience to cheers and applause, as the screen fades to black, is an exhilarating experience for the patrons involved.

But a film that also prompts such a response several times during the course of its story?

When John Glenn (Glen Powell) arrives at the Langley Research Center, he makes a
point of greeting members of the West Area Computing team: from left, Dorothy Vaughan
(Octavia Spencer), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Mary Jackson (Janelle
Monáe, partially obscured).
That’s a rare gift.

Director Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures isn’t merely a crowd-pleasing slice of actual history; it’s also a sly social statement, and a rich showcase for its three starring actresses. Melfi and co-scripter Allison Schroeder have turned Margot Lee Shetterly’s absorbing nonfiction book into an engaging drama that charms and fascinates in equal measure.

More than anything else, though, I remain stunned by the fact that half a century has passed, before this jaw-droppingly amazing story has been brought to our attention. What the heck took so long?

The setting alone is an eyebrow-raiser that somehow missed being discussed in any of my history texts. Much of NASA’s initial efforts during the early days of the space race, playing catch-up after the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1 and several subsequent spacecraft, took place at Virginia’s Langley Research Center, then very much a part of the Jim Crow South.

The campus included a remote, fully segregated arm known as West Area Computing, staffed entirely by African American women — all mathematicians — somewhat dismissively dubbed “computers.” When a group in the larger, posher east end of the center needed numerical verification (basically arithmetic scut-work), a lead engineer — all of said engineers being white and male — would send for “a computer,” much the way a temp secretary would be requested.

Shetterly’s book profiles four such women: Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Christine Darden. The latter has been omitted from this film; the other three have been brought to glorious life, respectively, by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.

(A quick bit of back-story not included in the script: The World War II-era recruitment of women allowed Vaughan, originally a mathematics teacher, to be hired in 1943 by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA. Jackson and Johnson, also mathematicians, were hired in 1951 and ’53, respectively.)