Monday, December 25, 2017

The Shape of Water: Flows exquisitely

The Shape of Water (2017) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated R, for nudity, strong sexual content, profanity and violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.29.17

Truly adult fairy tales may be the rarest of movie treasures, given how almost everything these days — particularly what emanates from corporate Hollywood — is designed for all-ages audiences.

When things start to go awry in the top-secret facility where they all work, paranoid
government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) interrogates everybody, including
cleaning women Elisa (Sally Hawkins, center) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer, center right).
We need look elsewhere for thoughtful, intelligent and provocative alternative fare: the cinematic equivalent of, say, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane (far more disturbingly graphic — but just as imaginative — as his Coraline or The Graveyard Book).

France’s Marc Caro comes to mind, with Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, the latter co-directed with Jean-Pierre Jeunet, equally adept at the genre, as evidenced by Amélie and Micmacs. Spain’s Alejandro Amenábar gave us The Others.

But they all pale alongside Mexico’s Guillermo del Toro, whose intriguing early efforts in this rarefied environment — Mimic and The Devil’s Backbone — were but a prelude to the masterful Pan’s Labyrinth: by far one of the most unsettling and provocative blends of fantasy and real-world horror ever brought to the big screen.

Until now.

The Shape of Water is an entirely different sort of Del Toro masterpiece: a richly detailed parable of lonely people coping with extraordinary circumstances, while confronting the monsters in our midst. The narrative — co-written by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor — has the lyrical quality of a gently poignant fable, which nonetheless conceals the sort of savagely ironic message beloved by Rod Serling.

It feels like one thing, upon entry: becomes something entirely different, before we’re allowed to exit.

Best of all, the film is powered by a truly stunning starring performance by Sally Hawkins, who in a few short years has emerged as one of the world’s finest and most sensitively nuanced actresses. She has enjoyed a remarkable year: This film follows her delicately crafted work in summer’s Maudie, and her unforgettable portrayal of Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis.

Nobody could have expected a second, equally transcendent performance in the same year. Her character here is similarly disenfranchised, and yet entirely different: a lonely, quietly withdrawn woman who blossoms — like a flower unveiling luminescent colors in bright sunlight — under highly unusual conditions.

The setting is Baltimore; the time is the early 1960s. On the one hand, this is recognizably our reality, as evidenced by familiar clothes, cars and (frequently intolerant) attitudes. People amuse themselves, at home after work, with soporific sitcoms such as Mr. Ed and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Lurid news reports are a daily reminder of post-atomic Cold War paranoia.

And yet other aspects quickly signal that this isn’t quite our world, but in fact a closely related parallel reality.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle — Fast-paced fun

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for fantasy action, mild profanity and considerable blue humor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.22.17

When it comes to the action comedy genre, the pitfalls awaiting careless directors and scripters are far more dangerous than anything faced by the characters in this film.

Too many dumb jokes. Relentless mugging by unrestrained cast members. Too much slapstick. Eye-rolling vulgarity. Gratuitous property damage. The list goes on.

Conquering one difficult task merely leads to a harder challenge, as this saga's reluctant
gamers repeatedly discover: from left, Dr. Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black), Jefferson
"Seaplane" McDonough (Nick Jonas), Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), Dr. Smolder
Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) and Franklin "Moose" Finbar (Kevin Hart).
Happily, director Jake Kasdan sidestepped all those miscalculations, which is a surprise — frankly — given that his résumé is littered with disposable junk such as Sex Tape, Bad Teacher and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

Much-deserved credit also goes to writer Chris McKenna, whose initial story was deftly fine-tuned with help from Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner. And, of course, they all borrowed a bit from the 1995 Robin Williams version, which in turn was adapted loosely from Chris Van Allsburg’s popular 1981 children’s picture book. (Got all that?)

However the gestation played out, this new film is a very welcome surprise: droll, clever, fast-paced, exciting and laden with enough gender-based humor to fuel the next half-dozen relationship comedies. I can’t quite call the result family-friendly, because the PG-13 rating is well earned by risqué one-liners ... but they’re all quite funny, and crisply delivered by a quartet of practiced scene-stealers.

This’ll be a popular repeat-viewing experience, because half the fun is zeroing in on everybody else’s expression — not possible, the first time through — as each verbal zinger is unleashed.

While it’s true that veteran video gamers will most enthusiastically embrace (and understand) the core premise, the learning curve is gentle enough for uninitiated mainstream viewers, who will return home well-versed in jargon such as “game lives” and NPCs (non-player characters).

As those familiar with Van Allsburg’s book know, Jumanji is a “haunted” board game with the disorienting ability to amaze — and endanger — players by bringing actual jungle environments and animals into the real world. No surprise, then, that such a game would adapt to changing times — in order to remain seductively enticing — by re-inventing itself as a late 20th century-style home video game.

The new roster of unsuspecting victims, initially associated solely by their presence in the same high school, includes Spencer (Alex Wolff), a smart but neurotic hypochondriac; Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), an overly cocky jock too “busy” to do his own homework; Bethany (Madison Iseman), the school’s condescending, self-obsessed queen bee-yatch; and the outspoken but socially awkward Martha (Morgan Turner). Only after-school detention could bring this quartet together, at which point a make-work assignment to clean up an unused classroom takes a sinister turn, when Spencer finds a dusty, long-unused video game console.

With you-know-what stuck in the game slot. Which we already know is dangerous, thanks to an intriguing prologue set 20 years early.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Greatest Showman: An apt superlative

The Greatest Showman (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for bits of dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.22.17

This lavish, opulently stylish musical, based very loosely on the early life and career of Phineas Taylor Barnum, is a slice of magic realism in the style of last year’s La La Land.

First-time director Michael Gracey delivers this splashy romp with a degree of razzle-dazzle that would have delighted Barnum himself. Given Gracey’s earlier credits as a visual effects artist and supervisor, we shouldn’t be surprised by the often stunning production and dance numbers, many of them powered by Ashley Wallen’s breathtaking choreography.

When shameless promoter P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman, right) decides to gain some
respect from New York City's aristrocratic elite, he seeks out respected author and
playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron). But will this writer of failed plays be willing to
descend from his lofty perch?
As is true of many musicals, some of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s original songs are Barnum-style show-stoppers; others ... sorta-kinda just hang there. The power anthems attached to the best sequences, however, will be remembered long after the lights come up: most notably the title song and “This Is Me,” the latter a triumphant statement of personal dignity, on behalf of the colorful but publicly shunned members of Barnum’s performing troupe.

The film also maintains its momentum thanks to Hugh Jackman’s vibrant performance as Barnum: a role that allows the actor to exercise the singing and dancing chops he displayed so magnificently in the stage musical The Boy from Oz (a side of his talent likely overlooked by those familiar only with various Marvel superhero movies).

Casting directors Tiffany Little Canfield and Bernard Telsey took care to avoid the mistake made in La La Land, which would have been vastly superior with two stars who actually could sing and dance. Jackman’s spellbinding performance is ably supported by a similarly adept roster of co-stars, beginning with the equally enthusiastic Zac Efron, returning to the genre that made him a star in the High School Musical trilogy.

Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon’s script plays fast and extremely loose with Barnum’s actual life, although they certainly get the tone right: a masterpiece of style over substance, with the same wink-wink-nudge-nudge hokum that the celebrated showman practiced himself.

A brief childhood prologue suggests that young Barnum’s impossible ambitions — as the only son of a poor, working-class father — get their momentum from his immediate devotion to Charity, the aristocratic girl who catches his eye, and grows up to become his wife. Their younger selves are played charmingly by Ellis Rubin and Skylar Dunn, and they share a touching ballad — “A Million Dreams” — that carries the narrative to adulthood and marriage (Michelle Williams taking over as Charity).

Now ensconced in the whirlwind of mid-19th century New York City, frustrated by a series of clerking jobs, Barnum hatches a mad scheme financed by a bald-faced bank swindle: a museum of the unusual and unseen. But it’s primarily a static waxworks show that proves of little interest to passersby.

“You need something living,” his young daughters Caroline and Helen insist (the two girls winningly played by Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely).

Friday, December 15, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi — Galaxy-spanning excitement

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for intense sci-fi action and violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.15.17

The newest installment in the Star Wars franchise certainly doesn’t lack ambition.

At 152 minutes, The Last Jedi is by far the longest chapter in George Lucas’ originally conceived three-trilogy ennealogy. (I had to look that one up.)

Having been sent on a desperate mission to the obscenely opulent gambling planet of
Canto Bight, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and Finn (John Boyega) have decidedly different
views on how to locate their quarry.
It’s also the grimmest, with an emphasis on the word “Wars” that echoes last year’s Rogue One. The middle chapter of a trilogy inevitably is the most dire, as was established in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. This new film’s solely credited writer/director, Rian Johnson, clearly took that precedent seriously. We hit the ground running, with few pauses for breath.

But they’re important pauses. Johnson understands the value of dramatic highs and lows, and — most crucially — of leavening dire doings with well-timed dollops of humor.

When last we left our various heroes, the Nazi-esque First Order — having risen from the ashes of the evil Galactic Empire — was eradicating the peaceful New Republic, world by world. Aside from wishing to dominate the universe, the evil Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) employed the Darth Vader-esque Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to seek out and destroy all traces of the Jedi order.

The plucky Rey (Daisy Ridley), imbued with the mysterious Force, has journeyed to the remote oceanic planet Ahch-To, in order to find and train with the long missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Former Stormtrooper-turned-good guy Finn (John Boyega), badly injured during a lightsaber battle with Kylo Ren, lies comatose in a medical stasis bed. Impetuous pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his faithful droid, BB-8, joined the Resistance forces commanded by Gen. Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), as they celebrated the destruction of First Order’s massive Starkiller Base.

If all this seems a voluminous information dump, it’s merely the tip of the iceberg; subplots and sidebar characters reference everything back to 1977’s very first film. Four decades later, it’s extremely difficult for new viewers to jump into this saga, and even longtime fans may need an Internet refresher course.

(This being the era of binge viewing, I suppose the tried-and-true are expected to power-watch the previous seven films before embracing this one. That’s asking a bit much.)

Darkest Hour: A shining achievement

Darkest Hour (2017) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and war sequences

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.29.17

Even knowing the outcome, thanks to the obvious historical record and ongoing pop culture reminders, director Joe Wright and scripter Anthony McCarten maintain a remarkable level of stomach-clenching suspense during every moment of this enthralling drama.

As Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) pauses attentively, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman)
parses words in order to place the desired emphasis on what will be one of the most
important speeches of his career.
Scene by scene, amid political clashes and confrontations, we endure palpable panic: Are our memories faulty? Will it all go wrong?

No, of course not. But the total, we-are-there immersion is quite impressive.

Darkest Hour takes place during a tempestuous several weeks in the spring of 1940: from May 10, when 65-year-old, hard-drinking Winston Churchill is named to replace Neville Chamberlain as the British Prime Minister; to June 4, in the aftermath of the Dunkirk miracle that gave additional weight to Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech in the House of Commons.

Fans of this period in British history are enjoying an embarrassment of riches; we’ve now experienced these events from strikingly different points of view, thanks to summer’s Dunkirk, television’s The Crown and now Wright’s Darkest Hour.

As depicted by McCarten — a double Oscar nominee, as scripter and producer of 2014’s The Theory of Everything — Churchill’s rise to that galvanic speech was anything but assured, and Chamberlain was far from disgraced and impotent, after being shunted aside. He and Viscount Halifax (née Edward Frederick Lindley Wood) remained relentless in their quest for appeasement by offering a treaty to Hitler, even as — particularly as — Western Europe’s countries fell, like a row of dominoes, against the Nazi assault.

And Chamberlain’s influence was considerable, as he still controlled the Conservative half of the House of Commons, all of the members fully prepared — in blinkered, knee-jerk fashion — to vote party over conscience, thereby stripping Churchill of his new position. (And boy, doesn’t that resonate these days, on this side of the pond!)

The political infighting is both fascinating and horrifying, but the film’s true power comes from Gary Oldman’s sublime portrayal of Churchill: one of those rare performances that is so thorough, so all-consuming, that it ceases to be acting. As far as I’m concerned, Wright and McCarten somehow found the means to resurrect Churchill, so he could star in his own story.

Wonder Wheel: Far from wonderful

Wonder Wheel (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and sexuality

By Derrick Bang

Toward the conclusion of Woody Allen’s newest dive into the pool of mid-century nostalgia, Kate Winslet’s Ginny — having descended into full-blown Norma Desmond madness — responds to an accusation by petulantly whining, “Oh, God; spare me the bad drama.”

My feelings precisely.

As the summer progresses, Mickey (Justin Timberlake) begins to realize that Ginny
(Kate Winslet) is placing far too much emotional weight on their clandestine affair.
Wonder Wheel is Allen’s homage to shrill, over-the-top melodrama: a contrived piffle that seeks to outdo the likes of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sunset Boulevard, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and their ilk. On top of which, the story is told by a character who — having informed us that he’s a budding poet and playwright given to florid exaggeration — clearly is an unreliable narrator.

Even allowing for all that, Allen’s film wallows in a swamp of soggy excess that surpasses the worst afternoon television soaps.

Which is a shame, because there’s much to recommend Wonder Wheel, starting with Vittorio Storaro’s gorgeous cinematography and Santa Loquasto’s impeccable period production design, which deliver a level of visual opulence rarely seen since Douglas Sirk’s lavish 1950s melodramas (Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life and others).

Even though all these characters recognize that their Coney Island home is past its prime, things still look terrific, in a fading-glory sort of way. The film takes its title from the massive Ferris wheel always standing vigil in the background, like a silent Greek chorus.

Ginny, pushing 40 and prone to migraines, works a dead-end job as a waitress in the Boardwalk clam shack. She’s married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), a recovering alcoholic who manages the merry-go-round in the amusement arcade. They live in a ramshackle apartment directly above the shooting gallery, the incessant pop-pop-pops frequently aggravating her debilitating headaches.

They bicker, snipe, squabble and quarrel in the manner of Ralph and Alice Kramden in The Honeymooners — also very 1950s — but with very little mitigating affection. It’s the second marriage for both, and we sense they’ve remained together mostly due to weary resignation.

They do a poor job of managing her bratty adolescent son, Richie (Jack Gore), a bad-seed monster and budding pyromaniac who loves setting fires below the wooden boardwalk. Everything concerning this little twerp seems to have migrated in from an entirely different film; his presence adds nothing to the core narrative, and his dangerous “hobby” is just sorta cast adrift during the third act ... rather sloppy, even for Allen.