Friday, May 25, 2018

Solo: A rip-snortin' space adventure

Solo (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action and violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.25.18

Among this film’s back-story revelations, large and small, the one that raises the quickest smile is the origin of Han Solo’s name.

Not yet at home: Han (Alden Ehrenreich, center) reluctantly sits back while Lando
(Donald Glover) and the overly chatty L3-37 pilot the Millennium Falcon to their
next destination.
I’d expect no less from a script co-authored by Lawrence Kasdan, who — let us not forget — collaborated with sci-fi legend Leigh Brackett on 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, arguably still the best of all Star Wars films.

Lawrence and his son Jonathan share writing duties on Solo: A Star Wars Story, which tells the origin (more or less) of the lovable rogue who introduced himself to Luke Skywalker by sliding behind a table at the Mos Eisley cantina, pointing to himself and saying, “Han Solo. I’m captain of the Millennium Falcon.”

Rather plain-vanilla, as character debuts come. How could we have known?

Solo joins 2016’s Rogue One as another side story that “fills in the cracks” between episodes of the primary Star Wars mythos. Unlike that earlier film, though, Solo clearly marks the beginning of its own two- or three-film franchise, given that it concludes quite neatly by dovetailing with a character from 1999’s The Phantom Menace.

Meanwhile, director Ron Howard’s Solo is a thoroughly engaging — and frequently suspenseful — depiction of the people and events that will shape Han into the lone wolf-turned-rebel hero who proves so important in the battle against the evil Empire.

Well, not entirely lone wolf. Kasdan père et fils also supply origin stories for Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian and even the Millennium Falcon’s holochess game.

Fans couldn’t ask for more.

As always is the case with the best Star Wars films, this one hits the ground running: Young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) do their best to escape the Dickensian White Worm Syndicate on Corellia, where they’re in thrall to a rather disgusting, otherworldly Fagin dubbed Lady Proxima (and voiced by Linda Hunt). This hell-for-leather opening concludes with Han — having no other choice — joining the galaxy-cleansing Empire as a foot soldier.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Book Club: A good read

Book Club (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and rather generously, for considerable sexual candor and some profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.18.18

Blend four accomplished actresses with a sharp script — particularly if laden with plenty of arch one-liners — and the results can’t help being delightful.

Sharon (Candice Bergen, left) is reluctant to take the "go for it" encouragement coming
from best friends Carol (Mary Steenbergen, center) and Vivian (Jane Fonda). At the same
time, all three are concerned about the romantic progress — or lack thereof — their
mutual friend Diane might be experiencing.
Such is the case with Book Club, a thoroughly entertaining showcase for stars Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen. The ribald premise invites — and delivers — a relentless stream of mischievously bawdy dialogue and clever double entendres, all courtesy of co-writers Erin Simms and Bill Holderman, the latter also making an accomplished directorial debut.

This film also is a game-changer for Simms, a once-busy actress making an equally noteworthy shift to writer/producer. (She shared behind-the-scenes credit with Holderman on 2015’s adaptation of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. This new film is much better.)

Book Club is another welcome entry in the Life Doesn’t End At 50 sub-genre of gentle romantic comedies, following in the recent footsteps of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Meddler. Simms and Holderman’s sweet and saucy script takes a perceptive poke at ill-advised expectations, unwarranted social conventions, and the silent resignation with which far too many people accept less than their fair slice of the romantic pie.

Diane (Keaton), recently widowed after 40 years of marriage, is regarded as just this side of a doddering invalid by her two well-meaning but insufferably condescending daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton). Vivian (Fonda), an enormously successful and wealthy hotel owner, has spent her life limiting male contact to short-term affairs with no strings attached.

Sharon (Bergen), a federal court judge, still hasn’t recovered from a decades-old divorce from ex-husband Tom (Ed Begley Jr.), who — twisting the knife even further — has just gotten engaged to a hotsy-totsy babe (Mircea Monroe, as Cheryl) who could be his granddaughter.

Carol (Steenburgen) hasn’t been able to rekindle the incandescent sexual spark that highlighted her 35-year marriage to Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), who has become withdrawn and aimless after his recent retirement.

Deadpool 2: Still gleefully gory

Deadpool 2 (2018) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for relentless violence, profanity, gore, sexual candor, tasteless humor and rather bizarre nudity

By Derrick Bang

If it’s true the world is going straight to hell, this film series is pushing us into the abyss.

Having been made an X-Men trainee by the metal-skinned Colossus, Deadpool (Ryan
Reynolds, left) attempts diplomatic persuasion in order to defuse a volatile crisis
involving a rogue mutant. Needless to say, that won't work...
The character of Wade Wilson, known as Deadpool while concealed beneath red and black Spandex, occupies a tasteless subdivision of the Marvel Comics universe. His insolence and appetite for blood-drenched vigilante justice set him apart from superheroes who obey a higher moral calling, and his mutant talent — accelerated regeneration, like a lizard that can re-grow its tail — encourages all manner of gross-out melees.

To its credit (?), the companion film series quite faithfully replicates the vulgar tone, rude banter and hyper-violent carnage. If anything, Deadpool 2 is even more deplorably disgusting than its 2016 predecessor, which — no doubt — will delight the fans who’ve pushed that first film to a ludicrously high IMDB rating of 8.0. 

To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the movie-going public.

Needless to say, these films can’t — shouldn’t — be taken seriously. They must be approached vicariously, enjoyed (endured?) as examples of the sick and/or dark-dark-dark humor typical of Pulp FictionBad Santa and both Kick-Ass entries.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying caveat emptor. If your idea of a good time doesn’t include watching our anti-hero groan and crack wise after literally getting ripped in two, bloody entrails dangling from both halves, better go for some other option at the multiplex.

This film picks up more or less where the first one left off, with the hideously scarred Wade (Ryan Reynolds) having settled into his role as masked mercenary and executioner of grotesquely vile criminal dons, drug kingpins, human traffickers and, well, you get the idea. Alas, that sort of behavior cuts both ways, and Wade gets hit where he lives. Literally.

Thanks to a quasi-alliance established with a few members of the X-Men, Wade is rescued from his subsequent funk by the imposing, metal-skinned Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic), who — with ill-advised optimism — makes Deadpool a trainee member of the team. Their first mission: to quell a crisis at a home for wayward mutant orphans, where a distressed teenage pyrotic named Russell (Julian Dennison) is carrying out his own scorched-earth policy.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Life of the Party: Out of control

Life of the Party (2018) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for sexual candor, drug content and blue humor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.11.18

This is a mildly amusing, occasionally endearing 30-minute movie.

Unfortunately, it runs 105 minutes.

Deanna (Melissa McCarthy, with paddle) is delighted when her daughter's sorority sisters
enthusiastically accept her as a member.
At its core, this story has a nifty message of empowerment, seizing the day, and making lemonade when life extends only lemons. (Or the other way around, as one of these characters insists.) It’s a solid premise: Unexpectedly divorced, middle-aged woman returns to college in order to earn the degree she was one short year from obtaining. 

That she happens to choose the university where her daughter is beginning her senior year, clearly adds to the comedic potential. Not a bad start.

Unfortunately, star Melissa McCarthy too frequently clutters up the film with her tediously unfunny shtick. Ergo, school’s out.

Just like the aforementioned young woman who mixes up the lemons/lemonade proverb, McCarthy clearly misunderstood one of filmmaking’s golden rules: that less is more. She seems to believe that more is more, when in fact — as becomes blindingly obvious on numerous occasions, as this flick stumbles its way to end of term — more is much, much less.

McCarthy takes a leaden one-liner — or an embarrassing calamity such as flop sweat, or an ancient, been-there-tired-of-that gag such as marijuana-induced giggles — and repeats it until we scream for mercy. Apparently (perceptively) concerned that the bit isn’t that funny to begin with, she beats it into submission, under the misguided assumption that reiteration confers hilarity.

It does not. It confers eye-rolling exasperation.

That’s the frequent reaction to this film. Every time McCarthy and director Ben Falcone bring us to a reasonably happy place — a point where we think, well, maybe this won’t be so awful — she stages another of her seemingly desperate bids for chuckles, thereby bringing everything to a dead stop.

She’s like a little kid: Looka me! Looka me! Looka me!

She and real-life husband Falcone have collaborated on three films now: He directs; she stars; they share scripting credit. Given that their previous partnerships have yielded 2014’s Tammy and 2016’s The Boss — both blindingly gawdawful flops — you’d think Warner Bros. would have thought long and hard, before granting them a third time at bat.

Because while it’s true Life of the Party is somewhat better than those stinkers, that’s damning with awfully faint praise.

Breaking In: Well-crafted suspense

Breaking In (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, dramatic intensity, sexual references and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

Modest thrillers can be quite entertaining, because they don’t come with the “baggage” associated with major studio productions. The stars and filmmakers are content to deliver a solid story in straightforward fashion.

Having temporarily evaded the lethal thugs searching each room, Shaun (Gabrielle Union,
right) assures her daughter Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) that they absolutely will survive this
nightmare. The girl isn't so sure...
2002’s Panic Room and 2005’s Red Eye come to mind; intriguingly, both feature strong female protagonists battling against insidious male opponents, and against seemingly overwhelming odds.

Director James McTeigue’s Breaking In belongs in their company: an equally clever premise and execution from scripter Ryan Engle; and a rousing, hard-charging performance from star Gabrielle Union. She’s absolutely believable as a mother bear determined to persevere — willing to do whatever it takes — in order to protect her children.

The fact that she’s also smart and resourceful, is the even more satisfying cherry on top.

McTeigue and Engle also understand the most important rule of storytelling: They know when to get off the stage. Their film runs an economical 88 minutes, which feels just right. No wasted footage, no extraneous nonsense.

Events begin with an unusual prologue involving a lone jogger: an event left unexplained until it dovetails nicely with subsequent events. Meanwhile, Shaun Russell (Union) has reluctantly sacrificed a weekend and brought her children along — teenage Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) and adolescent Glover (Seth Carr) — in order to prepare her late father’s isolated ranch estate for sale.

The immense house is nestled amid acres of surrounding forest; the equally massive grounds include empty horse barns and various outbuildings. Shaun, long estranged from her father, and from a childhood laden with unhappy memories, hasn’t seen the place for years. She and her children are surprised to discover that the house is a high-tech fortress, complete with surveillance cameras, impenetrable window shutters and a computer monitoring system worthy of a Las Vegas casino.

What was her father hiding from?

More to the point — for our purposes — why does cinematographer Toby Oliver keep following our trio, as they split up to explore the place, with unsettling tracking shots that elevate the hairs on the back of our necks?

We viewers are well trained in cinema technique; we know it’s because They’re Being Watched.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Tully: We all need this kind of care

Tully (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.4.18

Pedigree does count for something. 

It’s gratifying to recall being charmed when filmmakers previously collaborated, and to have expectations met while enjoying their next project.

Tully (Mackenzie Davis, left) watches with unconcealed warmth — and pleasure — as the
happily rested Margo (Charlize Theron) nurses her newborn daughter.
Director Jason Reitman and scripter Diablo Cody first teamed for 2007’s Juno, which was no less than a pop-culture revelation: her debut screenplay — and a well-deserved Academy Award winner — and only his second big-screen feature. Not bad, for new kids on the block.

Juno profiled an endearingly free-spirited young woman, as she contemplated how best to handle an unplanned pregnancy. In a sense, Reitman and Cody have re-visited that scenario with Tully, an often awkwardly intimate study of a middle-aged woman — already a mother of two — wondering how she’ll survive an unplanned third pregnancy.

Charlize Theron is sublime as Margo, a full-time mother already stretched to the limit while juggling the demands of a full-time job and the parenting needs of 8-year-old Sarah (the utterly adorable Lia Frankland) and 5-year-old Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica). The latter is a special-needs child prone to distressing outbursts, particularly when his routine is interrupted by something as trivial as where his mother parks while dropping them off at school.

The film opens on a tender daily routine between mother and son, as Margo gently “grooms” Jonah with a soft brush: a ritual that she believes will help calm him. Reitman and cinematographer Eric Steelberg frame this sequence with exquisite warmth and sensitivity, and — right away — we know that no matter what else, this is a woman wholly and totally devoted to her children. 

And, although stretched to the limit, she has things covered. Life works.

It’s telling that no character in this story — not Margo, nor her husband Drew (Ron Livingston), nor the increasingly harried school principal (Gameela Wright) — ever uses the terms “spectrum” or “autistic,” despite Jonah’s behavior strongly suggesting as much. We get a sense that Margo resists the label, because acknowledging as much might put Jonah’s care beyond her capabilities ... and that would be unthinkable.

Overboard: Floats delightfully

Overboard (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for suggestive content, mild profanity and fleeting partial nudity

By Derrick Bang

The rule regarding remakes is inviolable: If it won’t be at least as good as the original, don’t bother. Please.

As it happens, writer/directors Bob Fisher and Rob Greenberg’s re-boot of 1987’s Overboard isn’t as good.

Things are about to get unpleasant: Little realizing that he's minutes away from humiliating
her to an unacceptable degree, Kate (Anna Faris) initially is intrigued by the devil-may-care
playboy antics of Leonardo Montenegro (Eugenio Derbez).
It’s better.

For starters, this new version is remarkably faithful to Leslie Dixon’s script for the original film, down to the setting in fictitious Elk Cove, Oregon. (Filming actually took place in picturesque Steveston and Fort Langley, British Columbia.) The key plot beats are retained, allowing for minor shifts here and there. The stroke of genius, however, is the gender flip: It allows for entirely new levels of humor derived from droll pokes at traditional masculinity.

Adding a cultural element to the mix also brings creative opportunities for hilarity.

And while it’s refreshing to see Anna Faris in a romantic comedy that doesn’t rely on eye-rolling moron humor, she has to work hard to keep up with co-star Eugenio Derbez, who’s no less than a force of nature. He pretty much blows her off the screen. Although beloved and respected in his native Mexico, his roles in American films have been minor until now.

That’s about to change.

Derbez’s line delivery is sublime; his comic physicality has the fluid grace of a dance impresario. He can be laugh-out-loud funny while standing still ... not that he does much of that, in this well-crafted comedy. The premise was rich back in 1987, and Derbez makes the most of it here; he’s amusing, feisty, endearing or woebegone at the blink of an eye, and he makes you believe each shift, even in a silly comedy such as this.

Events begin with a prologue, as the paterfamilias of the Montenegro family corporate dynasty — Fernando Luján, as Papi — lies in bed, near death. His daughters — the imperious, avaricious Magdalena (Cecilia Suárez) and the meek, artistic Sofia (Mariana Treviño) — are stunned when, following tradition, their father announces that the business empire will be left to their ne’er-do-well brother, Leonardo (Derbez).

The fellow in question is an arrogant, insensitive, spoiled-rotten playboy currently anchored off Elk Cove in his luxurious yacht, which is complete with, respectively, hot and cold running women and champagne.