Friday, September 28, 2018

Fahrenheit 11/9: The Trump card?

Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for profanity and disturbing images

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.21.18

Half a dozen indignant documentaries ago, back in 2004, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 was a well-executed indictment of the over-reactive, post-9/11 policies that stoked public terror to foment what we now know were ill-advised wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: military endeavors that did nothing but further destabilize an already dangerous Middle East environment.

Unable to execute a citizen's arrest of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, filmmaker and
provocateur Michael Moore settles for watering the man's home and front yard from a
tanker truck laden with Flint's contaminated water.
That film also quite mercilessly scrutinized the feckless, post-crisis response of the Republican president — George W. Bush — who seemed to have no clue how to handle the aftermath of such a situation.

So here we are, 14 years later, and Moore’s kinda-sorta sequel targets a different Republican president: one apparently hell-bent on transforming this country into a fascist dictatorship.

The picture ain’t pretty.

Neither is Fahrenheit 11/9 at times, which — even for Moore — seems unnecessarily disorganized. His shtick is quite familiar by now, and this new film is the usual mélange of unsettling facts, caustic commentary, damning archival footage, eye-rolling stunts and occasional street theater. But it’s harder to follow Moore’s chain of logic this time; the dots don’t connect quite as well.

Isolated sequences are far more persuasive — and shocking — than the package into which they’re wrapped. He repeatedly states the obvious: The country is in a bad place right now, in great part because of obscenely rich white guys who believe they can get away with anything, and are determined to consolidate their power at the expense of the other 99 percent.

Much of this information dump is depicted against Moore’s calm, well-modulated, off-camera narration. No matter how heinous the images — and some of the sequences are guaranteed to make your blood boil — he never raises his voice, at all times sounding like a longtime friend conversing over a cup of coffee on the front porch. It’s remarkably effective, since his tranquil, seemingly bewildered, occasionally mildly disapproving tone allows us to achieve rage or righteous indignation on our own.

Much smarter than hectoring viewers with shrill indictments.

But as to how we got into this mess, Moore’s cause-and-effect “explanations” function better as water cooler conversation-starters, than as useful theories. And as to how we solve the current crisis … well … suggestions aren’t terribly forthcoming. That said, Moore is buoyed by the efforts of Florida’s high school anti-gun activists, and their successful nationwide rallies; and by the West Virginia schoolteachers who shut down every single one of the state’s public schools, en route to successfully getting their modest demands, and of the copycat movements inspired by their actions.

We spend considerable time with these two events, both of which are undeniably uplifting. Moore visibly admires the young Parkland activists, and a brief conference room chat with them elicits a droll rejoinder. Responding to one student’s claim that they hope to rescue the country from the misguided efforts of previous generations, Moore suggests, “Well, we must have done something right; we raised you guys.”

“No,” one girl snaps back, with a grin, “I was raised by social media.”

I’m not sure whether to be impressed by her savvy, or worried by her statement’s implications.

Friday, September 21, 2018

The House with a Clock in its Walls: Loses time

The House with a Clock in its Walls (2018) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG, and quite generously, despite sorcery, rude humor, occasional profanity and lots of scary stuff

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.21.18

At its best — thanks mostly to wildly imaginative production designer Jon Hutman — this film feels like a giddy visit to Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, filtered through the snarky sensibilities of Lemony Snicket.

Having just determined the nature of the malevolent spell ticking down within the walls of
their home, young Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), his Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) and their
friend Florence (Cate Blanchett) ponder their next move.
There’s a kid-level sense of atmospheric dread on par with Poltergeist, which is no surprise; Steven Spielberg produced and co-wrote that 1982 classic, and his Amblin Entertainment had a hand in this new fantasy.

But scripter Eric Kripke has taken serious liberties with the 1973 John Bellairs juvenile mystery on which this adaptation is based, and — more damningly — Kripke’s storyline is a clumsy mess: a series of disconnected sequences in desperate need of better transitions and linking material. The film succeeds mostly due to momentum, as opposed to any sense of stability or plot logic.

On top of which, the result is helmed by Eli Roth, a director/writer/producer best known for savagely gory horror films such as Cabin FeverHostel and The Green Inferno. He’s the last person in Hollywood I’d choose to orchestrate a family-friendly fright flick. And while — in fairness — he does tone down his torture-porn sensibilities, glimpses of his vulgar, nastier side nonetheless emerge in this PG-stretching rollercoaster ride.

I’m sure he can’t help it. And such tendencies do this film no favors.

The setting is 1955, in small-town New Zebedee, Michigan. Orphaned 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) has been sent to live with his extremely eccentric Uncle Jonathan (a perfectly cast Jack Black) in a creaky old mansion laden with everything guaranteed to scare the wits out of an impressionable little boy: 

A front garden with an uncomfortably lifelike topiary winged lion. Scores of clocks in every room. A comfortably padded armchair with a tendency to follow one around. A stained-glass window that changes its image. Strange sounds in the night. And — worst of all — a chamber filled with sinister dolls, puppets, marionettes, dummies and other prop figures, many only half-assembled or in need of repair.

On top of which, the house seems possessed by some sort of larger, more malevolent clock, its muffled, almost subliminal ticking emanating from the very walls and foundation.

What kid could ever spend a night in such a place?

Poor Lewis isn’t merely frightened; he also misses his parents terribly, both victims of a tragic accident. He has barricaded himself behind a protective façade of Captain Midnight-style goggles and a fondness for big words; the large suitcase that Uncle Jonathan huffs to his nephew’s upstairs bedroom contains an equal measure of clothes and dictionaries.

Life Itself: Should be put out of its misery

Life Itself (2018) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for profanity, dramatic intensity, relentless heartbreak and brief drug use

By Derrick Bang

This is the most relentlessly, manipulatively, cruelly depressing film I’ve ever had the displeasure to endure.

Abby (Olivia Wilde) and Will (Oscar Isaac) linger in bed with their beloved little pooch,
convinced that every morning — every day — will be as giddily, lovingly happy as this
one. Obviously, they haven't read the next page in this unspeakable film's script.
Writer/director Dan Fogelman obviously had some serious demons to exorcise, but that’s no excuse; he could have poured his heart into a journal, and spared the rest of us this soul-numbing slog of gloom and despair.

It’s also counter to what we’ve come to expect from the writer who brought us droll, sharply observed ensemble dramedies such as Crazy Stupid LoveDanny Collins (which he also directed) and the ongoing TV series This Is Us, not to mention Tangled, his clever animated take on the fairy tale Rapunzel. This has been a go-to guy for guaranteed entertainment for more than a decade.

What the hell happened?

And what in the world made Amazon Studios think people would want to watch this?

As becomes clear immediately, Life Itself also suffers from obnoxiously contrived structural and presentation tics, any one of which seasoned filmgoers generally recognize as a signal of Bad Things To Come: 1) tedious, said-bookism narration; 2) cutesy “chapter titles”; and 3) far too much time spent in a psychiatrist’s office.

At times, this is a deliberate deconstruction of cinema’s traditional storytelling process, in service of a running subtext concerning a fictional device known as the “unreliable narrator.” Hitchcock employs this quite notoriously in Stage Fright, when the “flashbacks” related by Richard Todd’s character turn out to be lies. More recently, The Usual Suspects tricked us grandly with an unreliable narrator.

But Fogelman’s use of this gimmick isn’t clever; it’s simply mean-spirited, as if he derives some sort of sadistic pleasure from shattering not only our expectations, but the investment we have in a blossoming series of captivating characters. By the end of the first “chapter,” the message becomes clear: Neither Fogelman, nor this film, can — or should — be trusted.

His apparent point: Life, itself, is the ultimate unreliable narrator, because just when things seem to be going wonderfully, true happiness can be shattered by tragedy.

Okay, fine … but must that happen over, and over, and over again, in the same dreary slice of rancid cinematic pie?

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Predator: A bloody good time

The Predator (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for strong bloody violence, gore, relentless profanity and vulgar sexual references

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.14.18

Revived sci-fi action franchises have done pretty well lately.

Chris Pratt and a fresh team breathed welcome new life into the Jurassic Park series, and now director/co-scripter Shane Black has done the same with an updated Predator. He and co-writer Fred Dekker acknowledge the 1987 original, while cleverly welding their story to a can’t-miss formula that hearkens back to 1967’s The Dirty Dozen.

When a captured Predator regains consciousness and realizes that it's about to become a
laboratory experiment, it reacts with understandable fury. (Unfortunately, our heroes
won't get their act together for several more scenes.)
The result is 107 minutes of skillfully paced suspense, divided into distinct “chapters” that involve audience-pleasing characters, all played well by an ensemble cast that blends familiar faces with several newcomers. The dialogue is sharp, the action frequently laden with droll banter: no surprise, coming from the guy (Black) who made his mark with 1987’s Lethal Weapon and, more recently, ensured that Iron Man 3 was far better than its sophomore-slump predecessor.

Too bad Black undercuts all this good stuff by making his new Predator so unrelentingly gory

We’re talking splatter-porn levels of abattoir grue more appropriate to trashy zombie flicks. Black signals such sensitivities right out of the gate, when an early human victim — suspended upside-down from a tall tree limb, as befits Predator custom — is sliced in half, after which the camera lingers needlessly on his entrails, as they slowly drip and slide to the ground below.


That’s merely the beginning. Black and Dekker gleefully succumb to all manner of slicing, dicing, severed limbs, eviscerations, disembowelments, decapitations and more, often depicted via grody-to-the-max close-ups. I fully appreciate that a Predator entry must be violent, but there’s such a thing as too much … particularly when such excess damages an otherwise shrewdly assembled thrill ride.

That aside, there’s no denying that Black hits the sweet spot that blends macabre humor, fast-paced thrills and edge-of-the-seat suspense.

The film opens with a space battle between two small fighters; the targeted ship escapes and crash-lands on Earth, right where retired Special Forces army ranger-turned-mercenary Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is leading a clandestine op against some Mexican drug cartel baddies. He alone survives the subsequent assault by the ferocious whatzit that emerges from the craft; better yet, McKenna escapes with the alien’s helmet and weapon-laden armband.

Suspecting a potentially hostile de-briefing back in the States, McKenna ships the alien tech home, where it unintentionally winds up in the hands of his adolescent son, Rory (Jacob Tremblay, well remembered from Room). He’s a spectrum child, on the border of autistic, and also — thanks to Tremblay’s gifted performance — one of the film’s strongest assets.

Due to Rory’s insatiable curiosity and savant-like talent for pattern recognition and puzzle-solving, he begins to figure out how this strange stuff functions.

White Boy Rick: Not worth the bother

White Boy Rick (2018) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity, drug content, violence, sexual candor and brief nudity

By Derrick Bang

The point of this film — the reason for its existence — eludes me.

The press notes proclaim it a “moving story” of a blue-collar kid who “enters into a Faustian bargain” and ultimately is “manipulated by the very system meant to protect him” and “betrayed by the institutional injustice and corruption that defined Detroit, the home they loved.”

The hook is planted: Ricky (Richie Merritt, left), not wanting his father to be arrested,
reluctantly agrees to a dangerous undercover scheme proposed by FBI agents
Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane).
Like, wow. Lay it on a bit thicker, could you?

Makes me wonder if these folks watched their own film.

At no time can the narrative in White Boy Rick be considered “moving” to any degree, nor is there room for an ounce of sympathy for any of these individuals. It’s impossible to chart a fall from grace, when somebody hasn’t any to begin with.

Nobody in director Yann Demange’s film is likable:  not for a nanosecond. Nor are they interesting/captivating in the manner of characters in a Martin Scorsese crime film. These are just mopes,  and spending 110 minutes with this gaggle of amoral scumbags and opportunists is a bewildering waste of time. 

We reach the conclusion and wonder, okay … to what purpose?

Demange’s filmmaking skills are acceptable, and several performances are noteworthy. Screenwriters Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller adhere respectably to the real-world facts, and Tat Radcliffe’s grainy, gritty cinematography gives this saga the feel of a documentary; there’s a sense that these events are happening in real time, and we’re granted access as invisible observers.

An argument can be made that law enforcement officials shouldn’t take advantage of ingenuous minors, but Ricky Wershe Jr. was hardly a poster child for exploited innocence. He was a seasoned delinquent without a trace of conscience long before the FBI came calling; blame for that undoubtedly falls on the shoulders of his low-life father, who cheerfully schooled his son in a life of crime.

We meet 14-year-old Ricky (Richie Merritt) as he helps his father (Matthew McConaughey) out-hustle a bent dealer at a Detroit gun show. It’s immediately apparent that Rick Sr. is a blue-sky dreamer who flits from one unlikely get-rich-quick scheme to another; his current “occupation” involves selling illegally enhanced AK-47s to local thugs.

Ricky, his older sister Dawn (Bel Powley) and their father eke out a lower middle-class existence in a predominantly African-American eastside neighborhood, roughly seven miles from downtown Detroit. Ricky’s grandparents — Ray (Bruce Dern) and Verna (Piper Laurie) — live across the street, grimly hanging onto their memories of a time when the area was booming, and filled with Chrysler employees and their families.

The Bookshop: A melancholy read

The Bookshop (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

Director/scripter Isabel Coixet coaxes moments of sublime cinematic poetry in her thoughtful adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s spare 1978 novel; the setting and characters — the sense of time and place — have been lifted lovingly from the page.

Beware the practiced insincerity of aristocratic hauteur: Not yet realizing that she has
been suckered into the spider's web, Florence (Emily Mortimer, left) thanks Violet
(Patricia Clarkson) for being invited to so lavish a gathering.
It couldn’t have been easy, in this instant-gratification social media era, to convey the unique warmth and comfort that derive from settling down — with no sense of time — to enjoy an absorbing book.

But viewers anticipating a typically light-hearted slice of eccentric, small-town British whimsy — a droll turn along the lines of, say The Closer You Get or The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain — are in for an unpleasant shock. Fitzgerald had much darker, class-conscious fish to fry, and Coixet has honored the subtext that unflinchingly skewers the small-minded malice of old-world aristocrats who — fully aware that they’re an endangered species — are determined to ruin the lives of their “lessers.” Simply because they still can.

To be sure, Coixet wields a brush of many colors; portions of her film are amusing, at times even laugh-out-loud funny. But such levity is subtly, mercilessly asphyxiated by the machinations of cold, calculated villainy; this is dark drama, not romantic comedy, and you will not exit the theater with a smile.

The setting is the small, East Anglican coastal town of Hardborough, Suffolk; the year is 1959. Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), widowed since losing her husband during World War II, decides to open a bookshop in a damp, long-abandoned building known as Old House.

It’s not clear how long Florence has been in Hardborough, although she seems a recent arrival. On the one hand, many of the locals greet her pleasantly enough; she’s familiar with the community, and aware that Old House has lain dormant for seven years. And yet there’s also a sense that she exists slightly out of phase with many of the townsfolk, who remain wary in her presence.

We do get a sense that Florence has emerged from a long period of grief, newly emboldened to give Hardborough its first bookstore as a gift, and as a means of sharing the special sort of magic that Fitzgerald described so well: “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.”

On a personal level, Florence intends the gesture as a means of preserving important memories of her husband: They met at a bookstore, and bonded over their shared devotion to its contents.

Her fatal mistake is the belief that this is a town that wants a bookstore, as much as she thinks it does.

Woe to those foolish enough to stroll public streets with their hearts worn so visibly on one sleeve: naïve idealists destined to become prey.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Peppermint: Revenge is sweet

Peppermint (2018) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for strong violence and profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.7.18

I miss the pink hair.

I also miss the moral uncertainty with which Jennifer Garner grappled so persuasively, during five seasons of television’s engaging Alias

Judge Stevens (Jeff Harlan, left) isn't the slightest bit happy to see Riley North
(Jennifer Garner) again ... particularly since he's bound and gagged, and she's
about to do something terrible.
And the gentler moments that bookended that show’s explosions of violence.

Although it’s a kick to see Garner get her bad self back on, don’t expect gentler moments here; there’s nothing vicarious about Chad St. John’s grim script for Peppermint. This is a revenge saga — simple and unadorned — and we must be grateful for the personality Garner is allowed to breathe into her character.

She has entered formulaic territory explored by all manner of previous actors: from Charles Bronson and Sylvester Stallone, to Liam Neeson and Keanu Reeves. Director Pierre Morel certainly knows the territory, having introduced Neeson to his own bad-ass career revival, with 2008’s Taken.

Morel moves things along at a good clip, succumbing only occasionally to obnoxious jiggly cinematography and a few other distracting stylistic tics. And if he and St. John turn Garner into an essentially indestructible avatar just this side of a superhero, well, she still takes a lot of punishment. Which she endures with persuasive agony and anguish, as she always did in Alias.

Morel and St. John hit the ground running, with a vicious confrontation between Riley North (Garner) and a gang-banger, within the tight confines of an enclosed vehicle. The outcome is inevitable, but the next step is temporarily left undisclosed; first we flash back five years, to witness what brought a suburban working mother to this dire situation.

We thus meet Riley for the second time: happily married to husband Chris (Jeff Hephner), and both devoted to young daughter Carly (the adorable Cailey Fleming). They live in a cheerful Los Angeles suburb, and money is tight; she works at a bank, he runs an auto repair shop, and they still can’t quite make ends meet. 

A friend tempts Chris into a “sure-fire easy way” to make a bunch of money, but — thinking it over, later — he wisely declines. (Good man, we think: the first of several clever little touches in St. John’s script.)

Unfortunately, the “friend” intended to steal from a local drug cartel run by Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba). Unaware that Chris has turned down the offer, Garcia orders his men to “smoke” everybody, as an object lesson. Cue a fusillade of gunfire that unintentionally leaves Riley alive, with horrific images now permanently etched onto her eyeballs.