Friday, December 21, 2018

Welcome to Marwen: An enchanting riff on real-world drama

Welcome to Marwen (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, disturbing images and fantasy violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.21.18

This story is so delicate and fragile — its approach so unconventional — that the slightest misstep would ruin it.

Because the real world is too frightening for him to confront at most times, Mark
Hogancamp (Steve Carell) finds solace in a miniature community that he populates
with characters he's able to control.
Far more than most films, viewer response will be completely polarized. Some (most, I fear) will dismiss it as gimmicky nonsense. But those who have any experience with gravely damaged souls, and their struggle to find coping mechanisms, can’t help being charmed — even deeply touched — by what director Robert Zemeckis has wrought.

On April 8, 2000, Mark Hogancamp was savagely beaten by five men and left for dead outside of a bar in Kingston, N.Y. He was brutalized after foolishly admitting — prudence abandoned due to an alcohol haze — that he liked to cross-dress.

He woke after nine days in a coma, all memory of his previous life completely gone: Navy service, a marriage and family, his talent as a sketch artist, and a descent into homelessness and even brief stints in jail. In a sense, he was reborn at age 38, forced during torturous physical and mental therapy to relearn how to eat, walk and even navigate the minor complexities of an average day.

Proving once again that artists are born, not made — and that if one means of expression is suppressed, another will rise to take its place — Mark sorta/kinda backed his way into an entirely new career: one which, in turn, proved beneficial to his raging PTSD nightmares.

Hogancamp was profiled in director Jeff Malmberg’s award-winning 2010 documentary, Marwencol; he’s now the subject of Zemeckis’ most audaciously innovative drama to date. (That’s saying quite a lot, given that we’re talking about the filmmaker who has pushed multiple narrative and effects boundaries with Forrest GumpThe Polar ExpressA Christmas Carol and — most recently — The Walk.)

Zemeckis and co-scripter Caroline Thompson open their film with a literal bang, as we’re introduced to star Steve Carell piloting an Allied aircraft over Belgian skies, during World War II. His plane is strafed beyond repair; he makes a successful crash-landing.

By this point, it has become obvious that Carell looks … not quite right. His features are shiny, his movements oddly jerky. Total disorientation takes hold when we notice that his wrists are jointed, attached to arms that seem a little thin.

Our hero is ambushed by a quintet of Nazis. Death seems imminent, until he’s rescued by a quintet of gun-toting women of varying nationalities, who blow the Nazis into smithereens. They collapse like … well … discarded dolls.

Aquaman: Waterlogged

Aquaman (2018) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, and somewhat generously, for considerable sci-fi action and violence, and occasional profanity.

By Derrick Bang

This film has serious issues with tone and balance.

Far too much of director James Wan’s narrative — he shares writing chores with Will Beall, Geoff Johns and David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick — sags beneath the weight of overly florid, Shakespearean-style dialog that most cast members lack the gravitas to pull off.

Having burrowed deep beneath the Sahara Desert, to discover the remnants of a long-
lost undersea kingdom, Arthur (Jason Momoa) and Mera (Amber Heard) activate a device
that will provide the next clue to the whereabouts of the fabled Lost Trident of Atlan.
And which is compromised further by the mildly earthy comments tossed off by star Jason Momoa. Mind you, he’s good with a quip, and Wan apparently felt that such contrasting elocution styles would be amusing. Instead, it’s merely awkward.

Then there’s the matter of villains. A superhero is only as good — as interesting — as his adversaries, and Momoa’s Aquaman has two. By far the more stylish, and far more dangerous, is a high-tech pirate known as Manta, played with savage malevolence by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. He’s a baddie to be reckoned with: a rage machine who radiates danger and has serious issues with our hero.

But Manta is relegated to B-villain status: an afterthought who isn’t much of a problem, and ultimately becomes a joke.

Which is ironic, because the true joke is Patrick Wilson’s laughably awful handling of the alpha villain: Aquaman’s half-brother Orm, would-be despotic ruler of all the undersea kingdoms. Wilson is atrociously out of his depth — pun intended — and radiates about as much menace as damp Kleenex. He looks and sounds like a whiny little boy who’s about to have his toys taken away.

This film collapses every time Wilson speaks a line, or faces off against the far more formidable Momoa.

I’m guessing Wan brought Wilson along for the ride, because the two of them have worked together on a bunch of nasty little horror flicks (the Insidious and Conjuring series, The Nun). Which points further to Wan’s poor judgment.

Aquaman also suffers from excess been there/done that: the inevitable result of too many superhero films piling atop each other. The regal look and sound of Atlantis, with its massive statuary and guarded “approach bridge” — and its position as one of seven mythic undersea kingdoms — are blatant echoes of Thor’s Asgard and its neighboring eight realms.

Aquaman’s mano a mano duels with Orm, over control of the Atlantean throne, are straight out of the Black Panther playbook … where, rest assured, the clashes were handled far better, and carried much greater emotional weight.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Mary Poppins Returns: Plenty of magic

Mary Poppins Returns (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.14.18

Even in a Hollywood environment driven by short-term greed, some films have managed to remain revered, thou-shalt-not-remake-or-sequelize classics (although that hasn’t stopped people from thinking about it).

Having magically entered the world painted on the outside of a Royal Doulton china
bowl, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt, center) encourages her companions — from left,
Georgie (Joel Dawson), Anabel (Pixie Davis), Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) and
John (Nathanael Saleh) — to join her for what surely will be a remarkable ride.
Gone With the WindCasablancaSome Like It HotLawrence of Arabia and The Godfather come to mind. (The latter was OK, because Francis Ford Coppola handled the trilogy himself.)

It’s not merely a function of great cinema; such films also are a product of their time — where we were, as a country and as a people — which further complicates efforts to re-visit them.

Mary Poppins made that list, and deservedly so, for more than half a century … although Disney’s failure to capitalize on their 1964 hit likely had less to do with leaving well enough alone, and more to do with the fact that author P.L. Travers loathed the film, and — since she lived until 1996 — likely blocked any efforts to draw additional water from the well.

But tempus fugit, and a couple of decades further down the line, Disney decided to attempt the impossible — no doubt with fingers crossed and breath held — and thus we have Mary Poppins Returns.

The studio certainly took pains to assure success. Director Rob Marshall, a veteran of opulent stage-to-film translations of Chicago and Into the Woods, is an excellent choice as guiding hand. He shares scripting credit with David Magee (Finding NeverlandLife of Pi and the under-appreciated Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) and John DeLuca. Truth be told, their shared vision hews much closer to the subversive edge present in Travers’ eight books, and which was missing from the 1964 film’s cotton candy tone.

The casting is equally choice. Emily Blunt steps primly, saucily and posture-perfectly into Julie Andrews’ immaculately polished shoes, and this saga’s three children — Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson) — are every bit as precociously adorable, and talented, as the original’s Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber.

Most crucially, Broadway phenom Lin-Manuel Miranda is bloomin’ terrific as Jack, the amiably optimistic lamplighter who stands in for Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep. The enthusiastic and athletic Miranda steals the show, and that’s no small feat; there’s much to admire in this ambitious and opulent musical fantasy. 

Marshall & Co. deliver a fresh, richly entertaining bit of razzle-dazzle, while honoring — and slyly referencing — the original.

Mortal Engines: High-octane thrills

Mortal Engines (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13 for dramatic intensity and sci-fi action and violence

By Derrick Bang

This one’s relentless.

Director Christian Rivers’ exhilarating adaptation of Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines is sci-fi world-building on a scale we’ve not seen since Lord of the Rings and Avatar. This impressively ambitious, post-apocalyptic saga hits the ground running — literally — and doesn’t let up during a bravura 127-minute adventure that barely seems long enough to contain its opulent wonders.

Out of the frying pan, and into the fire? Tom (Robert Sheehan) and Hester (Hera Hilmar,
right) are moments from a fate worse than death, when they're snatched away by the
enigmatic Anna Fang (Jihae). But is this a rescue ... or something more sinister?
Scripters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson have done an impressive job of condensing Reeve’s 2001 young adult novel into a slam-bang romp that faithfully follows roughly half the book and hits most of the key plot beats. (That said, Walsh & Co. deviate seriously during the climax, likely in the interest of anticipating a sequel.)

These events take place a millennium after what has come to be known as the “Sixty Minute War,” when Western nations unleashed a cataclysmic weapon that destroyed much of civilization, while causing planet-wide geological upheaval. Forced to adapt to earthquakes, volcanoes and other instabilities that continued for hundreds of years, metropolitan centers were retrofitted with massive wheels and engines, in order to become mobile “traction cities”: a steampunk method of survival known as Municipal Darwinism.

Countries have vanished; civilization per se has developed into cooperative bands of peaceful small-town traders, constantly on the alert for fast-moving, scavenger settlements.

Along with the biggest threat of all: the massive predator city of London, which hunts, pursues and dismantles (devours) other cities for resources.

All this by way of back-story, because Rivers opens the film without preamble, as the massive bulk of London chases down a small mining community known as Salthook. Production designer Dan Hennah, cinematographer Simon Raby and a huge visual effects team — Ken McGaugh, Kevin Smith, Luke Millar and Dennis Yoo, take a well-deserved bow — swoop the camera in, around and through London’s jaw-dropping hugeness and complexity, layered with bits and bobs clearly snatched from countless earlier captures.

It’s an absolutely amazing, stunning sequence, particularly as many of London’s thousands of residents gather at their city’s layered edges, cheering the pursuit with the bloodthirsty savagery of heartless nationalists (an allusion to current real-world behavior, in which this film frequently indulges).

Salthook has maneuverability and quick turns in its favor, but it can’t compete with London’s stronger engines. The outcome is inevitable, with one of the smaller community’s residents — a young woman with a red scarf concealing part of her face — watching with (we’re surprised) what appears to be mixed feelings.

Spider-Men: Into the Spider-Verse — A needlessly tangled web

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG for frantic animated action violence

By Derrick Bang

In today’s pop-culture entertainment world, you can’t have too much of a good thing.

When Marvel’s initial Amazing Spider-Man comic book becomes a smash success, the next move is obvious: Start publishing another dozen (or two) Spider-Man titles. If this cuts into the sales of the character’s flagship title, no matter; the combined overall sales are bound to increase.

Having barely gotten a sense of the whole web-slinging concept, young Miles discovers
that swinging between city buildings is a lot harder than it looks.
And if Spider-Man himself is a major part of the allure, then the next move is equally obvious: Concoct a storyline that creates more Spider-heroes. Thanks to one of sci-fi’s most overworked clichés — the notion of multiple parallel universes, where things are familiar but (tellingly) not quite the same — that’s a snap.

On top of which, the beauty of alternate realities is that writers can do something drastic — such as kill off a beloved character — without damaging continuity in our “core” reality.

The ultimate means of eating one’s cake, and having it too.

But care must be taken. If the original franchise — and character(s) — are diluted too much, everybody loses interest in the whole enterprise.

In fairness, directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman have done a mostly commendable job with the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Rothman and co-scripter Phil Lord deftly navigate the physics-challenged complexities of the alternate universe premise, while granting a solid origin story to a younger, equally captivating, but woefully inexperienced Spider-Man.

That would be Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino teenager who debuted in a complicated 2011 Marvel Comics storyline, and has remained popular enough to earn his own ongoing series.

But he’s not the character with whom this fast-paced, audaciously twisty saga begins. We’re instead (re)introduced to good ol’ Peter Parker, our one and only Spider-Man, who extols his uniqueness during a narrated prologue that cleverly references previous comic book adventures, along with iconic scenes from the live-action films that began in 2002 (most notably that sexy upside-down smooch with Mary Jane).

Poor Peter has his hands full, because the nefarious Wilson Fisk — better known as the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) — has teamed up with a theoretical physicist, in order to access the “multiverse” for a deeply personal reason. But Peter is enough of a scientist himself, to know that Fisk’s reality-bending device will have drastic consequences, and therefore must be destroyed.

The Favourite: Far from it

The Favourite (2018) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R for strong sexual content, profanity and nudity

By Derrick Bang

Director Yorgos Lanthimos relishes his outré sensibilities, as survivors of DogtoothThe Killing of a Sacred Deer and — most particularly — The Lobster can attest.

Having no desire to return to her formerly penniless existence, Abigail (Emma Stone, left)
does her best to become a valuable part of Queen Anne's entourage ... and, after hours,
an equally essential part of the queen's bed chamber.
The Favourite is cut from the same cloth. While the (more or less) historically accurate setting lends bite to a script laced with delicious bile, snark, betrayal and Machiavellian palace intrigue, the laborious execution quickly becomes tedious. Rarely have 119 minutes passed so agonizingly slowly.

Lanthimos also delights in overwrought directorial self-indulgence, which — through excessive repetition — becomes insufferably annoying. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s fondness for panning “around corners” with a fish-eyed lens is one such affectation; the assortment of thumps, twangs and screeches that passes for a score is even worse. An extended presentation of two plucked notes on guitar (?) persists for what feels like forever, linking several lengthy scenes; one cannot help wanting to dash into the projection booth and eviscerate the audio track.

Tellingly, no composer is credited for anything that approaches actual music. No kidding.

A director who delights in calling so much attention to his tics, hiccups, quirks, whims and eccentricities does his film no favors. Lanthimos’ approach distracts and rips us out of the story; he’s like a little kid who, vying for attention, repeatedly screams, “Don’t pay attention to them; look at me! Look at me!”


Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script has its basis in fact, with events set during the first decade of the 18th century, midway through the reign of Great Britain’s Queen Anne. She was not a happy or healthy ruler, and was ill-suited to the throne; timidity and chronic ailments made her miserable. Despite 17 (!) pregnancies, she failed to produce a surviving heir, and became the final monarch from the House of Stuart.

Anne was quite pliable, and had the misfortune to rule just as Great Britain was embracing an acrimonious two-party political system, with the Whigs and Tories squabbling over how best to handle an ongoing war with France. It’s perhaps fortunate that Anne’s most trusted confidante was Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, who — it has been strongly suggested — essentially ruled from behind the scenes. Although clearly governed by her own agenda, and inclined toward decisions and acts that favored her husband — John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough — Lady Sarah was intelligent, astute and decisive.

She also may have been Anne’s lover, and this is the film’s jumping-off point; Davis and McNamara boldly run with that sexual element. 

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: Minor-key melodramas

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R for strong violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.7.18

Anthology films — also known by the far niftier term “portmanteau films,” with interior short subjects usually linked by genre, author, premise or even star — have been mini-fads at various points in cinema history.

Having unwisely left the wagon train in search of her wayward little dog, Alice
Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) is terrified to discover that she and her sole companion have
been spotted by a band of angry Native American warriors.
They became something of a vogue during the 1940s, starting with 1942’s Tales of Manhattan. That was followed by 1943’s occult-laden Flesh and Fantasy; 1945’s deliciously spooky Dead of Night; 1948’s Quartet, with its four Somerset Maugham stories; 1950’s Trio and 1951’s Encore (Maugham again); and 1952’s O. Henry’s Full House.

Occasional one-offs notwithstanding, portmanteau films didn’t become popular again until 1968’s The Illustrated Man — with its selection of Ray Bradbury tales — led to a series of horror entries: The House that Dripped BloodAsylum and Tales from the Cryptad infinitum to this day.

High-tone entries included 1989’s New York Stories, with segments directed by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen; and 1995’s Four Rooms, with Roald Dahl short stories loosely adapted by directors Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino.

This brings us to Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which gathers half a dozen short concepts they’ve had kicking around for the past quarter-century. The tales are linked by their setting in the American West, which rarely has looked more vicious; and by a clever framing device that “lifts” each yarn from the pages of a vintage hardcover book, complete with gorgeous color illustrations whose captions — in each case — give a dramatic clue to what we’re about to see.

As always is the case with portmanteau films, the contents vary from excellent to good to not such a much. But since we’re dealing with the Coen brothers, even the lesser entries are worth viewing for tone, acting, cheeky directing, and Bruno Delbonnel’s lush cinematography.

The segments also have a few things in common: a darkly comic, even macabre tone; unexpected bursts of gruesome violence; and — in most cases — an atmosphere of grim despair.