Friday, September 15, 2017

Mother! — A nauseating miscarriage

Mother! (2017) • View trailer 
No stars (Turkey). Rated R, for strong and disturbing violent content, sexuality, nudity and profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.15.17

I never would have believed that the same calendar year could produce another mainstream film as self-indulgently loathsome as February’s A Cure for Wellness.

Actually, this one’s worse.

As her companion (Javier Bardem) inexplicably tolerates the intrusive presence of ever
more strangers in their huge home, our increasingly helpless heroine (Jennifer
Lawrence) wonders — and worries — where it'll all end.
Darren Aronofsky has pushed the borders of good taste — and any semblance of rational narrative structure — ever since 2000’s Requiem for a Dream. When tethered to somebody else’s (reasonably) coherent script — as with The Wrestler and Black Swan — his worst tendencies remain checked. He also can be a gifted actor’s director, having guided stars to Academy Award nominations and victories.

But when Aronofsky directs and writes ... look out.

Case in point: Mother!

Whether allegory, parable or primal scream, this blast of wretched excess is overwrought, insufferably distasteful and — once we reach the dog-nuts third act — vile beyond words. This abomination is guaranteed to enrage patrons into demanding refunds, after which they’ll stumble home, scarred for life, and in desperate need of a shower. And a means to sterilize their brains.

Alas, some things can’t be unseen.

On top of everything else, Aronofsky is guilty of stretching facile symbolism way past sustainability. Mother! might’ve made a decent 25-minute short subject; as a 121-minute assault on viewer sensibilities, it’s an exercise in mind-numbing overkill.

I carefully avoid spoilers, because even bad movies — well, most of them — deserve a chance to impress or surprise. But there’s simply no way to discuss Mother! without revealing Big Secrets. For which I apologize, in advance.

No characters are named. Our heroine (Jennifer Lawrence) shares an imposing mansion — isolated in a field, surrounded by a forest, far from any semblance of civilization — with her husband/lover/keeper (Javier Bardem). The place is a fixer-upper; she paints, plasters walls, handles plumbing and wood-working chores. She has been working thusly for quite some time, essentially re-building what had been a fire-gutted ruin.

He’s a poet, suffering the damnation of writer’s block. She’s patient, sympathetic, nurturing. She prepares his meals, encourages him to try, try again.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Wind River: A compelling, smoothly flowing drama

Wind River (2017) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for strong violence, rape, profanity and disturbing images

By Derrick Bang

The narrative in writer/director Taylor Sheridan’s superbly mounted Wind River is driven by equal parts grief, loyalty and justice ... the latter not necessarily to be confused with the rules of law.

Having back-tracked a fleeing young woman's progress through the harsh landscape of
the snow-covered mountains near Wyoming's Wind River Reservation, U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) and FBI agent Jane Banner
(Elizabeth Olsen) make an unexpected discovery.
In three short years, actor-turned-filmmaker Sheridan has established an impressive reputation for thoughtful, riveting dramas that place characters in situations — and environments — where the American dream is little more than cruel irony.

His scripting debut, with 2015’s Sicario, becomes more relevant by the day: its grim, uncompromising depiction of drug violence along the U.S./Mexican border an unhappy reminder of the degree to which American demand is responsible for Mexican supply. Last year’s Hell or High Water perceptively explored the callously unjust circumstances that drive disillusioned men to criminal activity, when they’re on the wrong side of the wealth/poverty divide in West Texas; Sheridan earned a well-deserved Academy Award nod for that one.

He also has been fortunate to see his projects embraced by strong casts delivering some of their finest work: from Emily Blunt’s naïve and idealistic FBI agent in Sicario; to the cat-and-mouse chase between Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, in Hell or High Water. Good or bad, noble or ignominious, the characters are always fascinating: often bearing the burden of some degree of failure.

Sheridan also has an ear for both dialogue — the way people actually talk to each other — and, even more crucially, the way they behave with each other.

And now, with his quietly powerful Wind River, he has zeroed in on what remains of America’s frontier, which — sadly — also is a damning indictment of American history, and the utter failure to properly address past sins.

The setting is the snow-enshrouded, late winter/early spring environment of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, where U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) routinely employs his tracking skills to eliminate predators — wolves, mountain lions — caught killing livestock. He’s an honorable man, liked and respected by ranchers and just-plain-folks within and bordering the reservation.

Friday, September 8, 2017

It: A horrific good time

It (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for bloody violence, frequent profanity and crude behavior

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.8.17

This one has teeth.

Literally.

Having determined that their supernatural tormentor's home base is the very-very-very
creepy haunted house at the outskirts of town, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) advises an
all-for-one-and-one-for-all assault: a suggestion met with incredulous unwillingness by,
from left, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Bev (Sophie Lillis),
Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) and Mike (Chosen Jacobs)
Director Andy Muschietti’s handling of Stephen King’s It is that rarest of creatures: a film adaptation that is superior to its source novel.

Despite being undeniably scary, King’s 1986 chiller is a bloated, self-indulgently over-written mess at 1,138 pages: a slog even for the author’s most dedicated fans. Scripters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman have pared down the book quite deftly, discarding the parallel narratives and retaining only the (far superior) kid-centric half of the saga.

The result plays like a coming-of-age blend of Stand By Me and TV’s Stranger Things, albeit far nastier ... as befits the storyline. Muschietti and his writers retained the essential plot beats from King’s novel, while accelerating the thrills and chills by subjecting the key characters — and us viewers — to a relentless barrage of impressively scary/creepy tableaus.

This campaign of terror is orchestrated by one of King’s finest creations: Pennywise the Clown, played here with viscerally shocking intensity by Bill Skarsgård. Between his, ah, behavior, and the way Muschietti choreographs said activities, impressionable viewers likely won’t sleep well for weeks.

I don’t say this lightly. Since 1979’s Alien, I could count — on the fingers of one hand — the films that have well and truly frightened me. Muschietti’s adaptation of It makes the list, and with good reason: He understands the true nature of fear. Unlike too many contemporary horror filmmakers content to repulse viewers, short-term, by wallowing in gore, Muschietti messes with our minds ... which is as it should be.

Anticipating the worst — not knowing precisely what’s coming, albeit having a dismayed notion — plants a much more powerful anxiety bomb in our nervous little heads. Muschietti plays us like a fiddle.

Which is not to say that this It is without its gruesome moments. Hardly. Muschietti bares his atmospheric fangs right from the start, which (of course!) leaves us unsettled for the rest of the ride.

That’s only half of the equation. This film’s success also derives from the exceptional work by its young ensemble cast, which brings a level of emotional resonance — even poignancy — that is likely to surprise folks. Genuine pathos in a horror flick? That’s an unusual combination ... and that’s precisely why the story grabs us so persuasively.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Patti Cake$: Baked too long

Patti Cake$ (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for relentless profanity and crude behavior, and drug use

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.1.17

An endearing saga of empowerment beats within writer/director Geremy Jasper’s debut feature, but it’s too frequently buried beneath crude behavior, relentless vulgarity and a wildly uneven tone.

As the enigmatic Basterd (Mamoudou Athie) listens warily, Patti (Danielle Macdonald)
outlines a plan for a rather unusual rap group with her grandmother (Cathy Moriarty).
Jasper can’t get out of his own way. He makes the rookie mistake of larding his film with twitchy cinematography, tight-tight-tight close-ups, and a surfeit of artistic aggression undoubtedly intended to mirror his protagonist, but which too frequently feels like an assault on our senses.

A mere 15 minutes into this flick, I wanted to bolt the theater. Patience proved a virtue, as Jasper eventually found his footing, and his film — and its star — ultimately won me over. But not everybody was as generous, during last week’s preview screening; several people abandoned ship. It was hard to blame them.

Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald), a plain, plus-size 23-year-old member of America’s working poor, ekes out a marginal existence in her dilapidated New Jersey home town. When not enduring insults during late-night shifts as a bartender in a seedy establishment populated by local losers, she’s stuck at home with a bitter, bitchy, boozy mother (Bridget Everett, as Barb) and a wheelchair-bound grandmother (Cathy Moriarty, as Nana).

Patricia’s fantasy escape route is fueled by her fixation on famed rap god O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), whose posters fill her bedroom walls; she dreams of stardom under the alias of Patti Cake$ or — better still — Killa P. Truth be told, she’s a talented poet and nimble rapper, but nobody takes her seriously: particularly not Danny Bagadella (McCaul Lombardi), the swaggering townie who dominates the local rap scene, and cruelly calls her “Dumbo” and “White Precious.”

Patti isn’t entirely without allies; she shares her passion for rap with BFF Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), a subdued young pharmacist by day, who blossoms into a wildly enthusiastic R&B crooner after hours. He believes in her, far more than she believes in herself. But faith isn’t enough, particularly when — at home — Patti must contend with her larger-than-life mother, who still resents the now grown result of an unintended pregnancy that derailed her own music career.

Everett’s Barb is frankly scary: a formidable force of nature so intimidating that one must credit Patti for having the chutzpah to stand up for herself. The uneasy mother/daughter dynamic is established early on, when Barb wades into the bar on karaoke night, and demands three quick shots from Patti: the latter two poured with long-suffering resignation, and full awareness of what is to come.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Logan Lucky: Misfit heist comedy beats the odds

Logan Lucky (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and somewhat harshly, for brief profanity and crude language

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.25.17

Director Steven Soderbergh appears to have been bitten by the Fargo bug.

The droll, slow-burn Logan Lucky could be described as a cross between Soderbergh’s Oceans 11 and that iconic 1996 crime thriller — and its more recent, and ongoing, television adaptation — with additional regional absurdity supplied by an impudent original script credited to “Rebecca Blunt.”

Jimmy (Channing Tatum, right) employs a cardboard diorama to explain his "perfect
scheme" for robbing the heavily guarded underground vault at the Charlotte Motor
Speedway, as his brother Clyde (Adam Driver) reacts with mounting disbelief.
The quotes are intentional, because no such person exists. As yet, this film’s writer hasn’t been identified, although sources have suggested Soderbergh, or his wife Jules Asner, or several other possibilities. Certainly Soderbergh is no stranger to pseudonyms; indeed, he employs two for Logan Lucky, having supplemented his director’s duties as both cinematographer (under the name Peter Andrews) and editor (as Mary Ann Bernard).

The narrative here certainly displays Soderbergh’s long-established dry wit and arch sense of humor, and the film is guaranteed to delight viewers who appreciate the methodical build-up and eccentric characters that more frequently populate British quasi-comedies.

The storyline takes its time while bringing the primary characters to the stage. The setting is small-town West Virginia, where divorced, down-on-his-luck Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) never gets to spend enough time with doting young daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie, cute as a button). Jimmy’s intentions are good, but circumstances always interfere, much to the displeasure of ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes), now married to the insufferably wealthy — and insufferably smug — Moody (David Denman).

Jimmy spends considerable time commiserating with his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), who lost an arm during war service in Iraq, and now tends bar at a local dive rather oddly dubbed the Duck Tape. Clyde is convinced that every member of their clan is doomed by a longstanding “family curse,” hence his missing arm, and Jimmy’s injury-related limp, with similar misfortune stretching back generations.

Their sister Mellie (Riley Keough) sniffs at such nonsense, and well she should; there’s certainly nothing amiss in her life. Far from it: Aside from being a talented and popular hairdresser, Mellie is obsessed by cars to a degree that extends way beyond being able to quote make and model stats like a baseball fan; she also can hot-wire anything — and always carries the necessary supplies for such endeavors — and knows local traffic patterns, night and day, with the facility demonstrated by taxi-driving Stan Murch, in Donald Westlake’s marvelous Dortmunder novels.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Step: Moves to a terrific beat

Step (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for thematic elements

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.18.17

Far too many years have passed, since we’ve been enchanted by feel-good performing arts documentaries such as Mad Hot Ballroom (2005) and Young@Heart (2007).

We also need reminding — particularly these days — of the value, power and rewards to be experienced, when people work hard toward a common goal.

All eyes are on their (unseen) coach, as she demonstrates a routine for the performance
piece being rehearsed by members of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young
Women's step class; the participants include Tayla (standing, foreground) and Cori
(also standing, center left)
All of which makes Step a welcome addition to the big-screen documentary family. Director Amanda Lipitz’s film is both celebratory and at times painfully intimate: a raw, mostly unvarnished window into the lives of inner-city families that barely tread water, while attempting — often with limited success — to do better by their children.

The setting is the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW), the city’s first all-female public charter, which opened in 2009 with enough space for just 120 students. The school boasts a motto — “Transforming Baltimore one young woman at a time” — that is just as ambitious as its goal: to graduate 100 percent of its high school senior class, and send all of them to college.

This film depicts events taking place during the 2015-16 academic year, as BLSYW prepares to graduate the 60 members of its entering class who’ve become high school seniors. Lipitz, one of the numerous volunteers who helped found the school, actually began shooting footage in 2009; that’s when she discovered that a subset of sixth-graders had formed a step team, soon to be known as the Lethal Ladies of Baltimore.

Lipitz, already a veteran documentarian, knew that she’d found her narrative hook.

After a bit of vintage footage introduces the youthful step team, and briefly explains the school’s purpose and origin, Lipitz brings us to the beginning of the girls’ senior year. They’re introduced to a demanding new step mentor, Coach G (Gari McIntyre), who bluntly insists that everybody needs to do much, much better, in the wake of a disappointing junior year that saw many of the girls slacking off.

Team leader Blessin Giraldo all but abandoned her post that year, cutting school frequently enough to jeopardize her academic standing.

Blessin is one of three students profiled extensively, along with their families, during the course of this film. She’s a tough cookie with a chip on her shoulder: a talented step performer who nonetheless feels “stuck” at school and at home. She makes repeated promises to do better, but her subsequent behavior belies such claims. She’s not dumb; she tearfully recognizes the consequences of sloppy effort, particularly during frequent meetings with tenacious BLSYW college counselor Paula Dofat (who deserves sainthood for patience and understanding, and is by far this film’s most engaging adult).

But when push comes to shove, Blessin is too easily distracted, and too prone to impulsive behavior. She comes by it honestly; her single mother, remarkably candid on camera, laments the degree to which her daughter takes after her. Blessin is fortunate to have several other adult relatives at close quarters — all women — but we worry that she’ll nonetheless fall through the cracks.

Friday, August 11, 2017

An Inconvenient Sequel: On the road again, with Al Gore

An Inconvenient Sequel (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.11.17


Accidentally or intentionally, justifiably or unfairly, in the moment or only through the lens of history, great events of progressive socio/economic change often become associated with a single individual.

Standing at the foot of Greenland's rapidly dwindling Russell Glacier, former U.S. Vice
President Al Gore sadly contemplates the implication of all this ice melt, and the impact
that so much water will have, throughout the world.
John Muir, and the modern environmental movement. Upton Sinclair, and working-class labor reform. Mahatma Gandhi, and nonviolent civil disobedience. Rosa Parks, and the civil rights movement.

Al Gore, and climate crisis.

That modifier is intentional and preferable, because the phrase “climate change” isn’t getting the job done; it’s much too passive. Human beings don’t respond to “change,” because it sounds slow, and therefore easy to ignore. Why bother, folks are inclined to think; it won’t matter during my lifetime.

A crisis, however, is an entirely different issue ... and the climate situation definitely is a crisis. At this point, nay-saying ostriches have about as much credibility as the Flat Earth Society, or those who believe Elvis still lives, or those who insist that the Moon landing was concocted on a secret Hollywood sound stage.

And yet there are so many nay-saying ostriches.

Everybody associates former U.S. vice president Al Gore with 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth, although director Davis Guggenheim certainly deserves much of the credit; he’s the one who carried home an Academy Award, a Humanitas Prize and dozens of film festival and Critics Circle awards. But Gore remains most associated with the film — no surprise — because it profiled his relentless march on the lecture and conference circuit, sounding the alarm about the dangers of global warming and climate crisis.

For the most part, he preached to the converted; the film frequently was ridiculed, in many cases reflexively, along political lines ... as if a pending global crisis were something that affected only Democrats and liberals, and could be ignored safely by Republicans and conservatives.

But the mere fact that An Inconvenient Truth provoked debate, was good enough. There’s also no question that the film played an important role in what has come to be known as the “sustainability revolution.”

Plenty of people also jeered at 1989’s Roger & Me, but — similarly — there’s no question that Michael Moore started something, and opened a lot of eyes.