Friday, November 23, 2018

Green Book: An inspirational journey

Green Book (2018) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, occasional profanity and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.23.18

Period biographical dramas rarely are this amusing.

Comedies rarely are laden with this much shrewd social commentary.

Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen, left), having promised to write frequent letters to his wife,
is surprised when Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) expresses more than a casual
interest in the process.
Sharply etched characters rarely are portrayed so precisely — so perfectly — by the actors cast to play them.

In a word, Green Book is superb: a thoroughly engaging slice of gentle filmmaking that veers from droll, to instructive, to heartbreaking, to laugh-out-loud hilarious. It’s a richly entertaining, feel-good experience that plays, at times, like a perfect blend of Driving Miss Daisy and The Odd Couple.

But such a simplistic elevator-pitch descriptor does a disservice to director/co-scripter Peter Farrelly’s marvelous road picture, and the two memorable, lovingly depicted characters who actually made this trip together, in the real world.

Talk about your “journey of discovery.” That phrase carries a lot of weight here.

The time is 1962. Bronx-born Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) — who goes by Tony Lip — is an imposing, well-dressed bouncer at New York’s Copacabana Club. Thanks to a facility for calculated charm that blends well with his capacity for rough stuff, Tony has managed to straddle this realm of celebrities and mob honchos, where he’s respected without getting wholly co-opted by the latter.

He’s a classic Damon Runyon archetype who might have stepped out of the era popularized by Guys and Dolls. Tony is far larger than life — literally, as Mortensen gained 30 pounds and an impressive paunch for the role — but still, at the end of each night shift, a devoted family man who returns home to his beloved wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and their two young sons.

Their home is the locus for a noisy, extended Italian family that chatters, bickers and fills a room with the boisterous revelry of a 24/7 party. These sidebar relations are deftly and memorably defined: the curmudgeonly father, the smart-ass brother, assorted cousins and spouses. Utter chaos delivered via thick Bronx accents.

When the Copa closes for renovations during the final two months of the year, Tony is left without employment (aside from occasional wagers, details of which are best left discovered as they occur). Potential financial relief arrives with an unusual job offer, as chauffeur for a certain Dr. Don Shirley. Tony dresses up for the interview, expecting a medical office and some sort of world-famous surgeon.

Instead, he’s escorted into a posh private apartment directly above Carnegie Hall, where Dr. Shirley (Mahershala Ali) turns out to be a world-famous concert pianist.

And is African-American.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Widows: Revenge with style

Widows (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for violence, profanity, nudity and sexual content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.16.18

This one hits the ground running — literally — and never lets up.

Director Steve McQueen’s skillfully constructed crime thriller boasts a top-flight ensemble cast and a sharp script — from McQueen and Gillian Flynn — along with slick editing (Joe Walker) and creative cinematography (Sean Bobbitt), which a camera that frequently crouches and prowls around walls and cars. The latter two elements contribute to a rising level of nail-biting tension that becomes nearly unbearable by the explosive climax.

Veronica (Viola Davis, center), grieving over the sudden, violent loss of her husband, is
comforted by political candidate Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who insists that she get
in touch if she ever needs anything. She'll find cause to hold him to that promise...
Everything that a taut suspenser should be.

McQueen’s film is adapted and updated from an equally hard-boiled, six-part 1983 British miniseries written by Lynda La Plante, best known on these shores for having created DCI Jane Tennison, in the riveting Prime Suspect franchise. La Plante set the narrative in London; McQueen and Flynn transplant the action to Chicago, while adding a strong — and brilliantly integrated — political element.

(Chicagoans must wonder whether their city ever will escape its corruption-laden reputation.)

The story kicks off on a heist-in-progress gone violently awry, as a four-man crew led by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) attempts to escape in a van, while police cars descend from all directions. This sequence is intercut with glimpses of earlier, calmer moments between the men and their four wives: Harry and Veronica (Viola Davis) in bed, deeply in love with each other; Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), arguing finances with the evasive Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo); Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), a Polish immigrant bride nursing another black eye inflicted by the abusive Florek (Jon Bernthal); and Amanda (Carrie Coon), happily nesting and co-parenting a newborn infant.

Back in the moment, Harry screeches the van into their warehouse hangout, two of his accomplices tending to the badly wounded third. But it’s a trap; surrounding police unleash a fusillade of gunfire. The van explodes and burns hot, leaving nothing but charred remains.


Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), a legacy candidate running for alderman in Chicago’s 18th Ward, pays a visit to the modest campaign headquarters of Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), the African-American opponent whose poll numbers have begun to climb. Jack’s family has run (and looted) the 18th Ward for generations, and Jack isn’t about to let that change on his watch; his viciously racist father, Tom (a savage, venom-spewing Robert Duvall), wouldn’t tolerate it.

This superficially cordial tête-à-tête between Jack and Jamal bristles with veiled threats and razor-sharp dialogue (which McQueen and Flynn continue to pen throughout the film). Jack clearly is as crooked as a spent match, dogged by accusations of having “extracted” $5 million from various phony public works projects. But it quickly transpires — after Jack departs — that the seemingly virtuous Jamal is no better.

Worse yet, Jamal’s interests are safeguarded by his homicidal younger brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya, recognized from last year’s Get Out), a psychopath with a fondness for using guns and sharp knives to extract information … or eliminate “problems.”

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald: Feloniously underwhelming

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and fantasy violence

By Derrick Bang

J.K. Rowling should have quit while she was ahead.

This newest glimpse into the Potterverse will be virtually impenetrable to first-time visitors, and even avid fans may have trouble keeping up. The information and character dumps are overwhelming, with Rowling — as scripter — apparently assuming that viewers will recall every little detail not only from this series’ first entry (2016’s Fantastic Beasts), but also bits and bobs from earlier Harry Potter adventures.

Having successfully infiltrated the French Ministry of Magic, in search of crucial information,
Newt (Eddie Redmayne) and Tina (Katherine Waterston) are about to be attacked by
guardian Matagots.
Which would be fine, if Rowling presented at least some pertinent detail and back-story along the way, but no; this is instant full immersion, and the tough luck for those unable to keep up.

But that isn’t the only problem. Director David Yates and editor Mark Day assemble this film quite sloppily, with multiple storylines hopping and skipping back and forth, in a manner as aggressively chaotic as the massive Chinese Zouwu that our hero Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) meets along the way. 

Some encounters flat don’t make sense. Even at 134 minutes, it feels like we’re seeing a Reader’s Digest condensed version of a much longer production, and that too much important stuff was left on the cutting-room floor.

There’s also a strong sense of déjà vu, with Rowling “borrowing” from her own work. This is most obvious when Newt and his “Auror” (magical law enforcement) companion, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), invade the French Ministry of Magic, with the help of some shape-changing polyjuice potion. One can’t help feeling the echo of Harry, Hermione and Ron similarly sneaking into the British Ministry of Magic, back in the day.

It’s too much been there, done that. And way too much talking and angst. Long-suffering unrequited love. A soul-tortured quest for personal identity. Elliptical, deliberately vague conversations where characters refuse to be candid with each other. Dangling clues that don’t amount to much, when answers are revealed.

Frankly, this film is a dull, boring slog. It’s not fun.

Nor is Johnny Depp’s Grindelwald anywhere near a match for Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort. The latter was — remains — a scary force of true malevolence, and was played as such in those movies.

Depp’s Grindelwald, in great contrast, seems more constipated than sinister; his “dire” pronouncements are intoned with a slow, emotionless flatness that feels more like sleepwalking. Were it not for his weird eyes and spiky hairstyle, he wouldn’t even look fearsome. One cannot imagine him rallying hundreds of “pure-born” wizards to his world-conquering cause, as occurs during this film’s climax.

Which, be warned, is little more than a blatant set-up for the next movie.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Can You Ever Forgive Me? — Fascinating character study

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and brief drug use

By Derrick Bang

New York-based freelance journalist/author Lee Israel published three biographies between 1972 and ’85, about actress Tallulah Bankhead, game show contestant Dorothy Kilgallen, and cosmetics maven Estée Lauder. The Kilgallen book earned considerable praise and hit The New York Times Best Sellers list; the Lauder tell-all was an ill-advised money grab that badly damaged Israel’s career, and sent her into an emotional tail-spin.

And so it begins: Having realized that a carefully "embellished" letter by a noted literary
celebrity is worth more to collectors, Lee (Melissa McCarthy, right) offers just such a
doctored document to antiquarian bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells), who reads it delightedly.
By 1992, 53-year-old Israel was a withdrawn, embittered alcoholic enduring a savage case of writer’s block, with no means of support; she faced eviction from a decaying apartment laden with hundreds (thousands?) of musty books, along with the paper debris and correspondence from a three-decade career.

Her “solution” — the impulsive means by which she kept a roof over her head — remains notorious and controversial to this day.

Director Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an unflinching account of this later chapter in Israel’s life: an often excruciating depiction of the depths to which self-pity can drive somebody. The grimly mesmerizing saga is fueled by two phenomenal performances, starting with Melissa McCarthy’s fearless portrayal of Israel.

Your raised eyebrows, gentle reader, are unwarranted. McCarthy demonstrated a solid talent for straight drama with her memorable supporting role in 2014’s St. Vincent, and her work here makes good — and then some — on that promise. Frankly, it’s a shame she continues to toil so far beneath her abilities, with low-brow comedy trash such as TammySpyHeat and pretty much everything else she has done since 2011’s Bridesmaids jump-started her big-screen career.

Actually, comedic stars-turned-serious actors aren’t that uncommon in Hollywood; the roster includes Bill Murray, Emma Thompson, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Steve Carell and quite a few others. No less than Jackie Gleason earned an Oscar nomination for his supporting role as Minnesota Fats, in 1961’s The Hustler.

Unforgettable dramatic characters often are driven by anguish and disappointment: a desperate state of mind that comedians know all too well. McCarthy is no different, and her persuasive work here frequently transcends the artifice of acting; it’s easy to believe that we’ve somehow stumbled into a means of time-shift voyeurism, and become privy to the actual Lee’s day-by-day exploits.

That’s not merely sensitive direction and accomplished acting, of course; credit also goes to scripters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, and their note-perfect adaptation of Israel’s fourth and final book, written just six years before her death in 2014. (That memoir’s title shall remain unshared for the moment, since it’s a total spoiler.)

At first blush, there’s nothing sympathetic or appealing about McCarthy’s depiction of Lee. She’s slovenly, unkempt and aggressively rude to strangers and colleagues alike. She has no friends, and it’s frankly amazing that her agent (Jane Curtain, as Marjorie) continues to tolerate the abuse.

It’s difficult to determine whether Lee is clinically depressed or “merely” misanthropic, although the distinction could be telling; the former option might justify a semblance of pity. But McCarthy doesn’t yield; even Lee’s one apparently redeeming quality — a steady devotion to her 12-year-old cat, Jersey — is offset by the squalor in which they exist (the specifics of which, when fully revealed, are a stomach-churning experience).

Friday, November 9, 2018

The Grinch: Hardly a bad banana with a greasy black peel

The Grinch (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.9.18

Dr. Seuss purists who still shudder at the memory of 2000’s live-action Jim Carrey fiasco can rest easy. 

Once the Grinch decides to ruin Whoville's Christmas once and for all, he realizes that
stealth infiltration will be most successful if he's disguised as Santa Claus. Cue a
furious sewing session on an elaborate machine powered by his dog, Max.
Illumination — the animation studio that brought us the Minions — has done well by its 21st century revival of the modest 1957 picture book, which took a savvy poke at Christmas over-commercialization … eight years before Charlie Brown and his little tree.

The Grinch retains most of what was important about both that 69-page children’s classic, and the 1966 Chuck Jones adaptation that remains must-see TV every December. It’s evident from this film’s opening montage: a swooping camera shot that descends — accompanied by a gentle instrumental cover of the familiar “Fahoo Foraze” — from snow-covered mountains into the heart of Whoville.

The little town bustles with the expectation of Christmas, only a few days away. Decorations spring up on homes and in streets, thanks to elaborate, marvelously crazed, physics-challenged Seussian gadgets, doohickeys, widgets, doodads, gizmos, thingamajigs and thingamabobs: everything from wobbly garland hangers and improbable candy cane twirlers, to a Zamboni-esque contraption that scoops up snow drifts and excretes neatly stacked pyramids of perfectly formed snowballs, for young Whovians to throw at each other.

By which point, we viewers can’t help smiling.

Our appreciation redoubles as the narration begins, with scripters Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow retaining and expanding upon the original book’s text, the new material capturing the same Seussian rhyming scheme. 

Such enhancements feel reasonably organic: Little Cindy Lou Who (voiced by Cameron Seely) now is the daughter of a hard-working single mother, Donna Lou (Rashida Jones), who also rides herd over rambunctious infant twins; and the scowly-growly Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch) must contend with his nearest neighbor, Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson), an ebullient, joyous, irrepressible fellow who — insufferably! — believes that they’re good friends.

In so many ways, producer (and Illumination founder) Chris Meledandri, directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney, and their massive animation team have done their best to honor the source material. No surprise, since Illumination also delivered 2012’s delightful adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax.

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms: Far from balletic

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.2.18

This isn’t your grandfather’s Nutcracker.

Actually, I’m not sure what to call it.

Having just learned that she's princess of the magical Four Realms, Clara (Mackenzie
Foy, left) is gowned in suitable fashion by Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), while one of
the palace soldiers guards them attentively.
This Frankenstein’s Monster is a cynical, coldly calculated commodity that lards the gentle Marius Petipa/Lev Ivanov/Tchaikovsky ballet with bits and bobs from Alice in WonderlandThe Wizard of Oz and The Chronicles of Narnia, wraps the content-heavy mess with a ribbon of mild steampunk, and — for good measure — adds Harry Potter’s owl as a bow.

Only Disney could concoct such a clumsy, lumbering mess of a movie, in what appears to be a deliberate effort to enhance the corporate brand via ancillary merchandising.

Along with the opportunity to further entice little girls with a new “Disney princess.”

Mind you, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms certainly looks spectacular. The traditional Disney logo — Sleeping Beauty’s castle — appears on the screen; then the camera swoops past its spires and takes us on a breathtaking, owl’s-view ride above and through Victorian-era London, all in a single magnificent tracking shot, until we reach the Stahlbaum residence, home of Clara (Mackenzie Foy), Louise (Ellie Bamber), young Fritz (Tom Sweet) and their father (Matthew Macfadyen).

It’s a dizzying, captivating tour-de-force opening by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, and visual effects maestros Max Wood and Marc Weigert.

Things get even more dazzling when the Stahlbaum family joins the cream of London society at the annual Christmas Eve ball, held in the even more opulent palatial estate of Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman). He’s an eccentric, well-traveled entrepreneur and inventor, who also happens to be Clara’s godfather. She shares his talent for tinkering and fabrication: a gift revealed earlier, in the Stahlbaum attic, where she dazzles Fritz with a complicated, Rube Goldberg-esque mousetrap that (briefly) captures an actual mouse.

But Clara is troubled and saddened: This is the first Christmas without her mother, Marie, who — in the rather harsh Disney tradition — is dead before this story takes place. Consumed by her own grief, Clara fails to register her father’s similarly forlorn bearing (a mood that Macfadyen conveys with a persuasive subtlety the rest of this film lacks).

Ah, but Marie has bequeathed a special gift to Clara this Christmas Eve: an ornate, locked metal egg accompanied by a note that reads “Everything you need is inside.” But the egg requires a golden key that Clara does not possess; she hopes that her godfather will know how to open it. Instead, Drosselmeyer speaks in benevolent riddles and sends her along a ribboned trail to find his gift to her.

At which point, after following the ribbon through his garden hedge labyrinth, and the similar maze of upstairs hallways in his oddly, ever-expanding upstairs wings, she emerges from the hollowed trunk of a massive felled tree in a snow-covered landscape.

Whereupon I turned to Constant Companion and muttered, “C.S. Lewis, here we come.”