Friday, July 10, 2020

My Spy: License to amuse

My Spy (2020) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for action violence and profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.10.20

A curious cinema sub-genre finds macho action stars slotted into comedies with children.

Vin Diesel turned babysitter in 2005’s The Pacifier. Dwayne Johnson discovered a surprise daughter in 2007’s The Game Plan, and donned a tutu in 2010’s Tooth Fairy. That latter year, Jackie Chan looked after his girlfriend’s three kids, in The Spy Next Door.

Although it breaks every known level of CIA protocol, JJ (Dave Bautista) reluctantly
accepts a dinner invitation from Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley) ... in great part because her
daughter Sophie (Chloe Coleman) threatens to blow his cover if he refuses.
It therefore was inevitable Dave Bautista would follow in their footsteps.

These films rise or fall on the personality of the child(ren) involved; if they’re insufferable, ill-behaved little brats who exist solely to make their adult chaperones look like idiots, the results can be dire. And knowing that director Peter Segal was responsible for Tommy BoyNutty Professor II and a gaggle of overly broad Adam Sandler comedies, did not exactly inspire confidence.

But the Erich Hoeber/Jon Hoeber script is smarter than usual, for such projects, and Segal (mostly) eschews wretched excess. More crucially, young Chloe Coleman is genuinely endearing as Bautista’s pint-sized foil, and she can actually act … as opposed to many of the youngsters who turn up in films like this.

The result is far more entertaining than I expected. Heck, at times even mildly poignant.

Bautista has made the most of his post-Guardians of the Galaxy notoriety, and the WWE veteran has the same gruff, brooding charm that helped Arnold Schwarzenegger achieve fame, back in the day. He also has an imposing physical presence that contrasts amusingly with a storyline that demands his character “get in touch with his inner feelings.”

Hardened CIA operative Jason “JJ” Jones (Bautista), ex-Special Forces, is introduced while “handling” a weapons-grade plutonium trade between the Russian Mafia and a Middle Eastern terrorist. The resulting mayhem appears to conclude successfully, but appearances are deceiving; JJ’s cowboy heroics allow one of the key villains to escape.

Back at Langley, JJ’s boss (Ken Jeong, suitably condescending) is extremely displeased; the terrorist in the wind has half the means to threaten the world with a miniaturized nuclear bomb. While a rival agent gets the plum assignment of tracking the most likely action in Paris, JJ is banished to a nondescript Chicago apartment. His job: to surveil a single mother, Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), and her 9-year-old daughter, Sophie (Coleman).

Kate’s deceased husband was connected to the terrorists, so there’s an unlikely chance that she knows something. In other words, it’s a tedious, likely useless monitoring gig.

Scoob: A doggone hoot

Scoob (2020) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for mild suggestive humor and fantasy peril

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.10.20

Scooby-Doo, the nervous Great Dane with a nose for supernatural-style trouble — and a manner of “speaking” borrowed from Astro, on The Jetsons — has covered an amazing amount of territory since solving his first cast back on Sept. 13, 1969.

Our young heroes — from left, Velma, Fred, Shaggy, Daphne and Scooby-Doo — don't
know it yet, but they're about to solve their first mystery.
The character and his human sidekicks have never notbeen ubiquitous on television, thanks to well over a dozen variations on their initial 17-episode run … not to mention numerous direct-to-video films and several (mostly) live-action entries.

It’s safe to say that Scooby-Doo has eclipsed Rin Tin Tin and Lassie as the world’s most famous canine screen hero. (No accident, these days, that we refer to a crime-solving detective’s posse as a “Scooby gang.”)

Director Tony Cervone’s Scoob, debuting on HBO Max and other video-on-demand platforms, is guaranteed to keep the lovable pooch vibrant for additional years to come.

Cervone’s pacing frequently has the frantic intensity of classic Warner Bros. cartoons, and the script — credited to no fewer than six hands — definitely captures the original Scooby vibe, while inserting snarky asides and droll one-liners that’ll keep adults equally entertained. The voice talent is solid, and longtime Saturday morning cartoon fans will have fun spotting all the supporting characters borrowed from other Hanna-Barbera shows.

The film is littered with additional Hanna-Barbera “Easter eggs”; you’ll want to pay careful attention to billboards and street signs.

Scoob also serves as an origin story, of sorts, with a lengthy prolog that shows how a clumsy puppy with hilariously oversized paws chances to meet 10-year-old Shaggy Rogers at California’s Venice Beach. Of course, they bond over a shared sandwich, and thereafter become inseparable best buds.

Halloween arrives shortly thereafter, at which point Shaggy and Scoob meet up with Daphne, Velma and Fred. During a pell-mell attempt to retrieve Shaggy’s bag of Halloween candy from a supposedly haunted house — with Scoob hindering and much as helping — the quintet exposes the actual culprit behind these faux scary doings.

(That’s key; classic Scooby-Doo adventures always seemed to involve dire supernatural events, ultimately revealed — after all manner of pratfalls and red herrings — to be the work of decidedly Earthbound human baddies.)

Friday, July 3, 2020

Spelling the Dream: True word power

Spelling the Dream (2020) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated G, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.3.20

Spellbound was one of the hits of 2002’s film season: an engaging documentary that profiled some of the young competitors vying for the championship in the annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee.

Shourav spends several hours each day studying the computer database of "challenging"
words likely to surface during the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Thanks to that film and other hits — such as 2005’s March of the Penguins and Mad Hot Ballroom — we’ve since enjoyed a welcome Renaissance in cinematic documentaries, which shows no sign of letting up.

Case in point: Spelling the Dream, a new Netflix original that mimics the successful Spellbound playbook, while analyzing the rather striking trend that has dominated the Scripps (no longer Howard) National Spelling Bee, during the past two decades.

Before getting to that, director Sam Rega opens his film with the staggering result of last year’s 92nd annual contest, when — after 20 exhilarating rounds — the judges acknowledged an eight-way tie for first place, after they ran out of words. Those eight kids beat the dictionary.

Simply amazing. Even before last year, this annual contest had become must-see viewing on ESPN.

The provocative detail is that an Indian-American competitor has won for the past 12 consecutive years: one of the longest streaks in sports history. The obvious question: Why? Rega and co-scripter Chris Weller decided to find out, by profiling a quartet of young Indian-American competitors, as they navigate local and regional elimination matches en route to the 2017 finale in Washington, D.C.

The answer, as we quickly discover, isn’t that complicated. These kids work for it. They’re no different than any young athlete who shoots hoops or dribbles a soccer ball for three hours every afternoon; the passion is simply cerebral, rather than physical.

Our candidates also are encouraged by loving parents and — as often seems the case — cheerfully competitive siblings who are equally talented. Rega and Weller quickly emphasize that these aren’t “tiger parents,” drilling kids at the expense of their own childhood; pursuing this dream is a truly collaborative family endeavor.

But yes, these spelling savants do have one advantage: They’re multi-lingual, having grown up in households where English sometimes is an afterthought. That helps significantly, when it comes to studying and understanding word roots.

Artemis Fowl: Quite foul

Artemis Fowl (2020) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG, for fantasy action and mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.3.20

When fantasy goes bad, it goes really bad.

I’m not surprised Disney abandoned theatrical release for this fiasco, in favor of a debut on its Disney+ streaming service.

Things are about to get much worse: Our heroes — from left, Domovoi (Nonso Anozie),
Holly (Lara McDonnell), Mulch (Josh Gad) and Artemis (Ferdia Shaw) — react with
horror as a massive troll prepares to ... well ... eat them.
But I’m frankly astonished that director Kenneth Branagh kept his name on it, because this misbegotten adventure clearly endured post-production tampering that left major chunks of key plot details on the cutting-room floor. What remains makes no sense whatsoever.

You’ll spend half the film — if you’re foolish enough to waste time with it — muttering, “But what about…?”

Matters also aren’t helped by the fact that the title character is an arrogant, thoroughly obnoxious little snot. He’s played by first-time actor Ferdia Shaw, and boy, the inexperience shows. His so-called performance is stiff as a board, and he’s constantly upstaged by everybody else in the cast … not a good thing, for the designated star.

(Seriously, Kenneth? This was the best you could get out of the boy?)

I can’t imagine fans of Eoin Colfer’s popular young adult series liking anything about this film. Scripters Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl extracted bits and bobs from the first two books — 2001’s Artemis Fowl and 2002’s Artemis Fowl and the Arctic Incident — but largely fabricated their own original story; calling the result a disappointment is gross understatement.

Perhaps the biggest sin is that Artemis, Colfer’s feisty “13-year-old criminal mastermind,” has been bowdlerized — in typical Disney fashion — into a “12-year-old devil-may-care genius.” Ergo, this film’s Artemis doesn’t do any thieving; indeed, he’d accomplish very little, were it not for the far more heroic efforts of his colleagues.

He has been sanitized to the point of utter blandness.

Sad, sad, sad.

Branagh opens his film with a ludicrous media throng gathered outside Northern Ireland’s imposing Fowl Manor (actually Antrim’s Dunluce Castle), in the aftermath of some Cataclysmic Event. An imposing figure — we soon learn he’s Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad) — is spirited away to a remote interrogation facility, where he reveals what occurred via flashback.

Enter Artemis, who prefers surfing to the humdrum routine of school work that doesn’t begin to tax his massive intellect. (Not that the surfing has anything to do with what follows, but it did keep the six members of this film’s “Surf Unit” occupied.)

Friday, June 26, 2020

Irresistible: Aptly titled

Irresistible (2020) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, and perhaps too harshly, for profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.26.20

Scathing. Savage. Shrewd. Smart.

And hilarious.

Having decided to enter the local mayoral race, Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper, left) proudly
introduces a sheepish Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) as his wildly over-qualified
campaign manager.
Everything a biting political satire should be.

Writer/director Jon Stewart’s well-timed broadside is a deliciously blistering indictment of the win-no-matter-what mentality that currently polarizes our country. As with all perceptive parables, the message is delivered via a premise and setting writ small: the better to make the point inescapable.

Add a brilliantly assembled cast, and the result is, well, irresistible.

An opening montage breezes through a series of carefully crafted, insufferably staged photo-ops that place past presidential candidates in cozy Midwestern settings: all intended to demonstrate that, no matter their über-wealthy lifestyles, they’re still “one with the humble folk.” The final shot places Democratic National Committee strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) in the midst of the Trump/Clinton fracas, which — as we know — ends quite badly for the latter.

Much to the delight of Gary’s arch-enemy, Republican National Committee strategist Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne, deliciously snooty).

Elsewhere, times have grown tough for the small rural community of Deerlaken, Wis. When Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton) and the town council reflexively enact cuts that target the local undocumented workers, this proves one callous act too many for Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a retired Marine colonel who runs a dairy farm with his adult daughter, Diana (Mackenzie Davis).

Jack, clearly not comfortable with public speaking, nonetheless interrupts the town council meeting with a brief, stirring statement advocating that “We all need to look out for each other.” The moment goes viral via social media, and quickly comes to the attention of Gary, still licking his wounds.

Tantalized by the possibility of winning back voters in America’s heartland, Gary flies across the country and makes an unscheduled visit to the farm, hoping to persuade the apolitical Jack to run for mayor.

Da 5 Bloods: A powerful statement

Da 5 Bloods (2020) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for strong violence, grisly images and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.26.20

Movie serendipity can be spooky at times.

Back in the spring of 1979, The China Syndrome hit theaters just 12 days prior to Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island almost-a-catastrophe.

Sheer chance has brought them to the right spot: As David (Jonathan Majors, far right)
watches quietly, his companions — from left, Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Eddie
(Norm Lewis), Paul (Delroy Lindo) and Otis (Clarke Peters) — find evidence of their
long-ago fallen comrade.
And now, director Spike Lee’s savagely compelling new drama, Da 5 Bloods, debuted on Netflix June 12, not quite three weeks after the callous murder of George Floyd ignited a justifiably enraged movement that shows no sign of slowing. Lee’s message couldnt be more timely.

His film warrants such enhanced attention. And then some.

Da 5 Bloods — co-scripted by Lee, Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo and Kevin Willmott — finds the reliably passionate filmmaker once again in the infuriated mode that characterized his early career. This isn’t a slyly sarcastic (and fact-based) jab at racist buffoons akin to 2018’s BlacKkKlansmanDa 5 Bloods is a bleak, intensely angry rage-against-the-man diatribe, with a slice of magic realism.

And, yes, a few winks and nods to classic Hollywood. Let’s call it a Vietnam parable by way of 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

The setting and character dynamics may be different, but the message is identical: Greed destroys.

African-American Vietnam veterans Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) haven’t been too successful, since returning to the world. They’re broken men, beaten down by grief, illness, addiction, financial ruin and divorce. And by regret and shame, knowing that — decades earlier — they were forced to abandon their fallen squad leader, known as Stormin’ Norman.

Haunted ever since by this failure (“Leave no man behind!”), they’ve returned to Vietnam, determined to find, and bring home, their former comrade’s remains.

As it happens, though, their motives aren’t entirely pure. Back in the day — shortly before Norman’s death — the squad was tasked by the CIA to deliver a chest of gold bars to the indigenous Vietnamese who were helping the American war effort. But Norman — passionate about his own people, back home — proposed they bury the gold until they could later reclaim it for the benefit of their own communities.

Friday, June 19, 2020

7500: A pilot's worst nightmare

7500 (2019) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence, profanity and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.19.20

This is a nifty little thriller: great premise, taut execution and excellent use of its claustrophobic setting.

Wounded and trapped in the cockpit with an unconscious attacker, Tobias (Joseph
Gordon-Levitt) nervously watches the cabin security monitor, waiting to see what the
other two terrorists will do next.
It’s also a real-time nail-biter, and those aren’t easy to handle; tension must be sustained credibly. Director Patrick Vollrath pulls it off in his solid feature debut; he shares scripting duties with Senad Halilbasic.

A prolog montage, monitoring activity at an airport security checkpoint, telegraphs what is to come: An overhead surveillance camera lingers briefly on several dodgy men, and we know we’re in for a hijacking.

In the cockpit of a passenger aircraft, pilot Michael (Carlo Kitzlinger) and co-pilot Tobias (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) run through the pre-flight checklist for their short hop from Berlin to Paris. Friendly chatter is exchanged with Gökce (Aylin Tezel), Tobias’ flight attendant girlfriend; everything is routine.

But not for long.

Minutes after take-off, Gökce brings Michael and Tobias some snacks; she knocks and stands outside the locked security door, waiting to be noticed via the monitor screen inside the cockpit. Michael flips the switch that unlocks the door … and that’s what three Muslim extremists have waited for. They rush forward, armed with knives improvised from broken glass; one yanks her aside, as the other two charge into the cockpit.

The resulting skirmish is furious but brief. The leader, Kenan (Murathan Muslu), mortally wounds Michael, but is overpowered and knocked unconscious; despite getting a nasty slash on his left arm, Tobias forces the younger Vedat (Omid Memar) back out of the cockpit, and re-locks the door.

Michael succumbs to his injury; the distraught Tobias, acting on panic and adrenaline, pushes the body to one side, and ties Kenan to the captain’s chair. He then immediately radios the situation to Berlin air-traffic control (“Code 7500: unlawful interference”) and arranges an emergency landing in Hanover.

Ah, but the terrorists haven’t given up. When it becomes clear that pounding on the security door is useless — the third man, Daniel (Paul Wollin), is absolutely terrifying on the black-and-white monitor screen, as he goes into a berserker rage — they grab a passenger and threaten to kill him, unless Tobias opens the door.

The situation … develops from there.

Friday, June 12, 2020

The King of Staten Island: Should be de-throned

The King of Staten Island (2020) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for drug use, sexual candor, brief violence and gore, and relentless profanity and vulgarity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.12.20

I cannot imagine this film’s target audience.

For starters, calling it a comedy is false advertising; nothing is funny here. Not even remotely amusing.

Scott (Pete Davidson) sees nothing wrong with staying home with his mother (Marisa
Tomei) most nights, and watching mindless television. Alas, when this cozy dynamic is
threatened by a newcomer, Scott becomes even meaner than usual.
If writer/director Judd Apatow has made this for millennials, it’s a savagely damning portrait. Are we seriously to believe that anything about this misbegotten drama’s protagonist is endearing?

Even given Apatow’s decency-shredding tendencies, and fondness for vulgarity, The King of Staten Island is way, way beyond tolerable. 

It’s available as an on-demand streaming rental, at a premium price.

At its core, the script — by Apatow, Dave Sirus and star Pete Davidson — is a redemption saga. Meaning, we spend the first two acts watching ruthlessly selfish, 24-year-old, weed-smoking degenerate Scott Carlin (Davidson) abuse everybody in his orbit … after which we’re supposed to cheer him on during the third act, when he starts getting his act together.

Sorry, but no; this formula works only if the character in question deserves redemption. Which Scott most certainly does not.

On top of which, the character dynamics here don’t exist in anything remotely approaching reality. While higher than a kite, and egged on by his “friends,” Scott starts to tattoo a 9-year-old boy … and he doesn’t get locked up for child abuse? Worse still, the boy’s father — following an initial furious tirade — quickly turns forgiving, because he wants to start dating Scott’s mother?!?

This is supposed to seem reasonable?

Not in this universe. This script — and premise — are forced contrivances stretched far beyond the snapping point.

Scott, a foul-mouthed Failure To Launch, still lives with his mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei, who does her best to bring some class and charm to these dire proceedings). Their lives have remained on hold ever since her husband, Scott’s father, died in action as a Staten Island fireman. Margie maintains a living room shrine to her late husband; Scott has weaponized his grief as an excuse to be nasty to everybody.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Military Wives: Be sure to enlist!

Military Wives (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.5.20

Director Peter Cattaneo makes adorable feel-good films that cleverly blend light, character-driven humor with social commentary that often pokes at the British class system.

Lisa (Sharon Horgan, left) can't quite believe it when, instead of just allowing their group
to sing a song, Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas) insists on beginning with high-falutin'
vocal exercises.
He put himself on the map with 1997’s The Full Monty, and if his subsequent films didn’t live up to that big-screen debut — 2001’s Lucky Break and 2008’s The Rocker — it’s only because he set the bar so high the first time.

Well, Military Wives — available via Amazon Prime and other streaming platforms — hits all the markers that made Monty so entertaining. The cherry on top is that Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard’s script is inspired by deeply moving actual events: a poignant (and well-timed) reminder that people from disparate backgrounds can accomplish marvelous things when working together.

The setting is 2010, at England’s (fictitious) Flitcroft military base. (Production actually took place at North Yorkshire’s Catterick Garrison, the world’s largest British army base.) The ongoing war in Afghanistan has just entered the “surge” phase, with increasing numbers of Allied troops being deployed overseas; this includes many of the active-duty soldiers at Flitcroft.

Their wives and girlfriends, left behind on base, have limited options for distracting themselves from worst-case fears. Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas), wife of the company commander, decides to take a more active hand in gathering the women for group activities. By doing so, she steps on the toes of Lisa (Sharon Horgan), the base’s newly appointed Social Committee chair.

They’re a classic case of oil and water, destined never to mix. Kate is a condescending, high-minded aristocrat who throws her status around; Scott Thomas delivers just the right note of smug entitlement. The earthier, working-class Lisa has long enjoyed being “just one of the girls,” and she’s not about to let her new “promotion” get in the way of that.

Kate wants to organize productive, formally structured activities; Lisa — and the rest of the women — prefer informal morning coffee klatches and wine-fueled evenings.

The Lovebirds: Nothing to tweet about

The Lovebirds (2020) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for violence, crude sexual content, and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.5.20

Personality compensates for very thin material — to a modest degree — but that’s hardly enough to make this needlessly vulgar rom-com worth anybody’s time.

Having successfully evaded a killer — a second time — Leilani (Issa Rae) and Jibran
(Kumail Nanjiani) attempt to blend with a crowd of typical New Orleans tourists.
The Lovebirds is little more than a two-person stand-up routine occasionally interrupted by plot. The script — blame Aaron Abrams, Brendan Gall and Martin Gero — aspires to be a profanity-strewn update of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, but that dark comedy had a much sharper script (Joseph Minion, take a bow).

Actually, director John Landis’ Into the Night, which also arrived in 1985, covered similar territory: a white-collar couple unexpectedly enduring a night of hell when circumstances prompt them to venture into dodgy, big-city neighborhoods laden with all manner of creepy individuals.

The one fresh element here: Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani mine sharply perceptive humor from their racial heritage. Rae’s Leilani, in particular, gets a lot of comedic mileage from pointing out that white cops never would believe the increasingly convoluted mess that has ensnared them.

Granted, Rae and Nanjiani are adept at well-timed one-liners. But you won’t find much “acting” here; they essentially play themselves. Leilani is feisty, forthright and empowered; Nanjiani’s Jibran is a petulant, under-nourished milquetoast who masks his physical insecurity with higher-education haughtiness. He’s been that guy many, many times before.

The credits unspool over a meet-cute montage that turns them into a couple; after director Michael Showalter’s name appears, we leap forward three years, at which point Leilani and Jibran are inches from a spiteful separation. They’ve fallen into a rut, and sniping at each other is easier than working through it.

The bickering is quite crude and offensive, which (much too frequently) is what passes for humor these days. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if viewers bailed within the first 10 minutes of this Netflix original.

In fairness, things improve. Marginally. (Not enough.) Showalter and Nanjiani are working way beneath their talents here; their previous collaboration — 2017’s The Big Sick — is vastly superior.

Friday, May 29, 2020

The Vast of Night: Only mildly cosmic

The Vast of Night (2019) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.29.20

In many ways, first-time director Andrew Patterson’s sci-fi homage is impressive.

He delivered remarkable results despite a micro-budget that recalls similar guerilla productions such as 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, 1981’s The Evil Dead and 1992’s El Mariachi

To her surprise and mounting concern, each time Fay (Sierra McCormick) attempts to
seek help in identifying a bizarre radio signal that has invaded her telephone
switchboard, the call abruptly drops out.
Patterson and his writers, James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, also evoke a strong sense of the 1950s small town New Mexico setting — the fictitious community of Cayuga — during the shoot in Whitney, Texas, where it appears the streets, businesses and inhabitants are time-locked. (I’m sure that isn’t really the case, but the verisimilitude is uncanny.)

Cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz employs the heavier grain of 1950s-era film stock, further enhancing the strong sense of time and place.

That said … allowances must be made.

This definitely looks like one of the best student films ever made. But Montague and Sanger’s narrative is best appreciated as homage, and Patterson’s directorial tics and twitches don’t always do his subtle thriller any favors. The Vast of Night — an Amazon Prime original — will be appreciated most by genre geeks who enjoy spotting the clever nods to War of the WorldsInvasion of the Body Snatchers and television’s original Twilight Zone.

Mainstream viewers will have trouble enduring the insufferably talky first act, and they’ll likely find such references a cute contrivance at best, atop a basic storyline that takes too long to get where it’s going.

The three earlier films cited above overcame their budgetary limitations, in great part, via momentum and tension. Patterson tries to do the same solely via mood and mild suspense; that’s much harder to pull off, and he’s not entirely successful.

Events take place during a single evening, which begins as most of the townsfolk head to the high school gym, to cheer the home-town lads during a basketball match against a tougher rival. Twentysomething Everett (Jake Horowitz), a charismatic and well-liked radio DJ at the town’s local station WOTW (get it?), makes final checks on the system that’ll record the game events for later re-broadcast.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Driveways: Park yourself in front of this one!

Driveways (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Not rated, but with some blunt profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.22.20

There are movie stars, and there are actors.

And, rarely, there are actors: the wielders of true magic. The ones who slide into a role with such smoothness — such casual subtlety — that you’re not even aware of the craft on display. You simply spend time with that character.

When Del (Brian Dennehy) realizes that a friend has failed to provide a promised ride,
Kathy (Hong Chau) grudgingly agrees to drive him ... in part because her son,
Cody (Lucas Jaye), insists that it's the right thing to do.
I first clocked Brian Dennehy in 1978’s Foul Play, when his small supporting role — jostling for attention among scene-stealers Chevy Chase, Goldie Hawn and Dudley Moore — nonetheless registered. Considerably, in fact; he was the one authentic human being among exaggerated burlesques. It was a clever move by writer/director Colin Higgins, because it allowed Dennehy to stand out.

He probably caught the attention of most moviegoers as the overzealous, hard-ass sheriff in 1982’s First Blood, which kick-started Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo franchise. Dennehy’s CV since then has been far too impressive to cite here: always engaging, always enjoyable. Even when he was just larking about — as in the two F/X films he made with Bryan Brown — the work was solid. He became that guy.

His film work was eclipsed by a stage career that netted two Tony Awards, for Death of a Salesman and Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Dennehy died on April 20 — 81 years old, and still too young — but he left us with one final sterling performance, in director Andrew Ahn’s sensitive indie drama, Driveways.

The achingly poignant Hannah Bos/Paul Thureen script is buoyed further by co-stars Hong Chau and Lucas Jaye. Although additional characters briefly drift in and out, this is essentially a three-hander: a delicate, intimate study of loneliness and regret, and the healing power of simply reaching out.

Ahn wastes no time in back-story. Single parent Kathy (Chau) and her young son Cody (Jaye), after a long drive, pull into the driveway of her long-estranged and recently deceased older sister. Night has fallen, and Kathy’s body language is reluctant, resigned but grimly resolute; Cody has the morose face of an adult who hasn’t experienced enough joy.

The long-retired Del (Dennehy), living along next door, notes their arrival.

Arrangements, obviously made in haste, are incomplete; Kathy and Cody aren’t able to get inside. They back-track to a cheap motel, and return — better prepared — in the morning. Once inside, they’re greeted by a hoarder’s nightmare; the house is wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with junk and debris that completely conceals what once must’ve been a cheerful, cozy home.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Apollo 11: To infinity, and beyond!

Apollo 11 (2019) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated G, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.15.20

The images haven’t lost their power, and I’m sure they never will.

We’ve had no shortage of NASA-themed re-creations and documentaries since 1995’s Apollo 13; that drama definitely jump-started its own genre, starting with 1998’s equally compelling 12-part miniseries, From the Earth to the Moon.

Although gathering "Moon rocks" was an essential part of the mission, astronauts
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin also placed several ongoing experiments on
the lunar surface.
All manner of IMAX entries followed, from 2002’s Space Station 3D and 2010’s Hubble, to 2016’s A Beautiful Planet.

But nothing compares to the real thing.

Documentarian Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11 is a mesmerizing depiction of the off-world mission that fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s May 1961 message to Congress, when he concluded, “Then we must be bold!” (Ah, for the days when our presidents were so inspirational and unifying.)

Thanks to a newly discovered trove of previously unprocessed 65mm footage, along with more than 11,000 hours of uncatalogued audio recordings — and supplemented with some familiar images that we’ve seen, over the years — Miller and his team meticulously condensed the eight-day mission into a thoroughly absorbing 93-minute experience.

Indeed, at times the presentation borders on candid intimacy, given some of the light-hearted exchanges between the three astronauts and Mission Control.

Miller, who also edited his film, makes excellent use of split-screen, to depict simultaneous events (and, at times, add a bit of drama).

We’re also reminded of the era’s limitations; the notion that we accomplished this with early-gen computers makes the success even more astonishing. Heck, this is a time when engineers still used slide rules to verify — and compute (!) — performance specs.

The film opens with a jaw-dropping visual — at slightly more than three hours before takeoff — as the two ginormous “crawlers” slowly transport the Saturn V rocket to the launch site. (As well-versed as I am on the Apollo program, I don’t recall ever having seen this process so up-close-and-personal. Like, wow.)