Friday, July 21, 2017

Dunkirk: An intense, masterful drama

Dunkirk (2017) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated PG-13, for intense war violence and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.21.17

Christopher Nolan doesn’t merely spin a crackling good yarn; he tells it in a provocative, wildly imaginative manner.

Thousands of Allied soldiers wait anxiously on the "mole" — a narrow, kilometer-long,
wood-boarded breakwater that pokes precariously out into the cold waters of the
English Channel — while praying they'll be able to board a rescue ship before being
strafed by Luftwaffe Messerschmitts.
His fascination with nonlinear storytelling began with Following and Memento — the latter ingeniously unfolding both forwards and backwards — and ultimately became too much in Inception (a dream within a fantasy within a head trip within a nod to Orson Welles ... quite overcooked, but audacious nonetheless).

Dunkirk does not succumb to such excess, although some viewers may be perplexed by how its three parallel storylines intersect ... until the penny drops, resulting in a richly satisfying — dare I say exhilarating — A-ha! moment.

This film is a masterpiece: a compelling, ingeniously conceived and choreographed slice of suspenseful, nail-biting history transformed into a thoroughly absorbing drama. Everything connects here, starting with the superlative work turned in by a huge ensemble cast composed primarily of unfamiliar faces and a few high-profile character actors.

Nolan both wrote and directed this stunning slice of edge-of-the-seat cinema, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he also came up with the attention-grabbing tag line: “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home ... home came for them.”

Remember being riveted, in 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, by Steven Spielberg’s 20-minute handling of the Normandy Beach landing sequence?

Nolan ups that ante. Dunkirk maintains that level of suspense and peek-between-your-fingers anxiety for its full 106 minutes. You literally dare not blink during his ticking-clock handling of simultaneous narratives that come together brilliantly, in time for a climax that’s no less triumphant, for our prior knowledge of how the story concludes.

The drama comes from the skillfully sketched, ground-level characters, whose fates we most definitely don’t know, history notwithstanding.

This is a snapshot of a seminal event during the early days of World War II: an incident that began with a ghastly military disaster, but concluded with an amazing miracle that demonstrated anew — here’s a lesson worth repeating — how individual civilians absolutely can make a massive, heroic difference.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: Sci-fi twaddle

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action/violence and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang

Anybody in doubt about the crucial important of acting chops, need look no further than this misfired spectacular.

Despite having completed their assignment on the desert planet Kirian, Valerian (Dane
DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) aren't safe yet; the criminal marketeer they
robbed has just sent a giant beastie after them, propelled by the command "Fetch!"
Director/scripter Luc Besson has helmed a visually opulent adaptation of the famed French sci-fi comic book series by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières, which enjoyed a stunning run from 1967 through 2010 (and has been collected in 21 graphic novels and a short story collection, for anybody wishing to catch up). The narrative is based mostly on the sixth book, Ambassadors of the Shadows.

The film certainly looks fabulous, thanks to a worlds-building blend of Hugues Tissandier’s production design, Scott Stokdyk’s visual effects team, and Avatar-style motion capture creatures. The core plot is solid, with thoughtful messages about inclusiveness, environmental concerns, forgiveness and the unintended consequences of war.

Casting the heroic spatio-temporal agent Valerian, and his plucky, quick-witted companion Laureline, should have been a sacred mission on par with the careful selection of each new James Bond. The title role demands somebody with the grit, smug charm and hard-charging recklessness of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo or — to borrow from Besson’s own oeuvre — Bruce Willis’ Korben Dallas, in 1997’s The Fifth Element.

Besson didn’t even get close this time.

I’m sure Dane DeHaan is a nice fellow: kind to animals and dutiful about texting his mother at least once a day. But he’s no actor. He’s stiff as a board throughout this lengthy disappointment, has no facility with dialog, and couldn’t deliver a quip if his life depended on it. He’s a veritable black hole, sucking all life from the film.

Most damning, because he is so clumsy with the flirty banter that typifies the relationship between Valerian and Laureline, DeHaan turns his character into an obnoxious pain in the ass. He doesn’t merely drag the film down; he brings it to a grinding halt. I kept hoping that one of the oversize beasties in this colorful saga would swallow him whole.

DeHaan may be remembered as the beleaguered young protagonist in the loathsome A Cure for Wellness, unleashed earlier this year. He was quite bad in that as well, but it mattered less, because the film — as a whole — was such an unmitigated disaster.

Valerian had the potential for greatness. Several problems prevented that, and DeHaan’s laughably awful performance tops the list.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Maudie: Portrait of an unlikely artist

Maudie (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and brief sexuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.14.17

Film, despite the potential of its myriad elements, rarely delivers the intensity of a powerful stage performance.

Everett (Ethan Hawke) can't understand why Maudie (Sally Hawkins) puts so much
painstaking — and painful — effort into her delicate watercolor paintings. As far as he's
concerned, they only interfere with her primary purpose: to feed him on time.
There’s something electrifying about being in the presence of a truly charismatic actor: one who slides wholly into a role with an authoritative snap that crushes any thought of looking elsewhere. Every move, gesture and sentence are riveting; we’re simply spellbound.

You don’t very often get that from a film performance.

Here’s one.

Sally Hawkins’ title role in Maudie is the stuff of cinematic legend: not merely a role that should bring her an Academy Award, but one destined to be remembered for a long, long time. It’s a delicately crafted, sensitively delivered characterization that transcends the term “acting,” and becomes something truly wondrous.

That said, this Canadian/Irish co-production doesn’t make it easy on Stateside viewers unfamiliar with Maud Lewis, a humble 20th century Nova Scotia woman who — unexpectedly, astonishingly — became one of Canada’s most famous folk artists. Director Aisling Walsh and scripter Sherry White dump us — without title credits, preamble or any sort of back-story — into the drab, day-to-day frustration of Maudie’s thirtysomething routine.

It’s the mid-1930s. Maudie lives with her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) in the tiny community of Digby: a “kept” existence arranged by her condescending brother Charles (Zachary Bennett), her only sibling. He calls her “Sister,” unwilling to grant her even the small dignity of her own name. Both their parents are dead; Charles arrives one morning to inform Maudie that he has sold the family home — without bothering to consult her — to settle outstanding debts.

He dumps her meager belongings, including a set of paintbrushes, and departs. Hastily.

He’s ashamed and embarrassed by her, and believes that she cannot care for herself. Maudie suffers the debilitating after-effects of childhood rheumatoid arthritis, which has left her body wracked with pain and twisted at odd angles.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming — A tangled web

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action and violence, and mild profanity

By Derrick Bang

It’s both ironic and yet appropriate that this newest incarnation of Spider-Man — let’s call it Spider-Man 3.0 — works best when young Peter Parker is out of costume.

Try as he might, Peter (Tom Holland) can't seem to make things work properly ... either
in his personal life, or as the web-slinging would-be hero, Spider-Man.
As originally conceived by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, way back in 1962, Peter was an angst-ridden high school outcast: a nerd long before that word became a fashionable descriptor. Eternally abused by campus tormentor Flash Thompson, ignored by all the cool kids, Peter took solace from his scientific curiosity and the protective embrace of home life with his beloved Uncle Ben and Aunt May.

British actor Tom Holland — so powerful as the eldest son forced to help his family cope with a tsunami’s aftermath, in 2012’s The Impossible — persuasively nails this all-essential aspect of Peter’s personality. He has a ready smile that falters at the faintest slight, real or imagined; he’s all gangly limbs and unchecked, hyperactive eagerness. Peter frequently doesn’t know how to handle himself, because he doesn’t yet possess a strong sense of what his “self” actually is.

That said, director/co-scripter Jon Watts’ update of Peter gives the lad a firmer social grounding that he possessed in all those early Marvel comic books. He’s a valued member of his school’s academic decathlon squad, where he’s routinely thrust alongside teammates Flash (Tony Revolori), crush-from-a-distance Liz (Laura Harrier) and the aloof, slightly mysterious Michelle (Zendaya, the effervescent star of TV’s engaging K.C. Undercover).

And — oh, yes — Peter is a-bubble with enthusiasm over the secret he cannot share with anyone: his recent trip to Berlin, supposedly as a science intern for Stark Enterprises, but where he actually joined Iron Man and other super-powered associates and went mano a mano against Captain America (recent back-story details supplied via a clever flashback).

Impetuously assuming that he’ll therefore be made a member of the Avengers, Peter is chagrined when days and weeks pass without a word from Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) or his right-hand man, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). I mean, Spidey deflected Captain America’s shield, right? What the heck is Tony waiting for?

Retrieving stolen bicycles and helping little old ladies may establish cred as “your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” but it hardly stacks up against saving the world from super-powered bad guys. Peter chafes at being abandoned on the sidelines, and thus makes the mistake that Stark anticipated.

Wholly contrary to the essential divide between civilian and costumed life, Peter begins to employ his alter-ego as a crutch: a means to enhance his social status.

“But I’m nothing without the costume,” he eventually wails, in genuine torment, to Tony.

“If that’s true,” Tony replies, “then you don’t deserve it.”

The Big Sick: Just what the doctor ordered!

The Big Sick (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.7.17

Stand-up comics have a significant advantage, when it comes to autobiographical projects; they’ve fine-tuned such material during years of comedy club appearances.

As their relationship blossoms, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) and Emily (Zoe Kazan) spend
more and more time together, even as both continue to insist — with diminishing
conviction — that this "isn't anything serious."
The results can be terrific, as demonstrated by (for example) Nia Vardalos’ My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays.

The Big Sick is a similarly delightful experience: by turns sweet, funny and poignant, with a gently instructive cross-cultural moral that we desperately need these days.

The film stars Pakistani-American actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani, perhaps best recognized from his starring role on HBO’s Silicon Valley. He co-wrote The Big Sick with his wife, Emily V. Gordon; the film depicts their real-life courtship, which started when, as a grad student, she attended one of his stand-up appearances at a Chicago comedy club.

The relationship gets off to a shaky start. Although Kumail (playing himself) and Emily (Zoe Kazan) enjoy each other’s company, neither is looking for a relationship. She’s focused on finishing a master’s degree in couples and family counseling, in order to begin a career as a therapist; he’s enduring the grueling, grinding ordeal of trying to hone a stand-up set in front of frequently unforgiving audiences.

Then there’s the other issue. She’s a modern American white gal; he belongs to a conservative Muslim family, with parents — Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) — who expect him to enter into a traditional Pakistani arranged marriage. Like they did, and like his older brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) did, with his wife Fatima (Shenaz Treasury).

Kumail faithfully has dinner once a week with his family: chaotic affairs with (in his own words) “five different conversations going on, people talking over each other, and everyone’s very loud.” Which wouldn’t be so bad, except that Kumail’s mother always sets a sixth place at the table, in case an eligible young Pakistani woman “happens” to drop in. Which one always does.

Bearing a photo and résumé. Which Kumail dutifully takes back to his apartment, once dinner concludes, and tosses into a cigar box laden with similar profiles.

So yes, there’s a strong echo of Greek Wedding, albeit from a Pakistani perspective. But there’s also a significant difference, because Kumail can’t work up the courage to tell his parents about Emily (whereas she has shared everything about him with her folks). He’s paralyzed by anecdotes about adult children and other relations banished from their families, for similar “transgressions.”

Unfortunately, Kumail also doesn’t share his lack of candor with Emily: a nagging secret that eats at him, as their didn’t-want-a-relationship blossoms into a genuine love affair.

This can only end badly ... but Kumail can’t imagine how badly.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Beguiled: Not beguiling enough

The Beguiled (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, and rather harshly, for fleeting sexuality

By Derrick Bang

As a setting, Southern Gothic is a character in its own right: drooping, moss-draped trees enclosing antebellum mansions, their white paint edged with gray and slightly peeling; a keening, high-pitched whine of insects driven into a constant frenzy by shimmering heat; the miasma of humidity so unrelenting that everything — flora, fauna and dwellings — sags beneath a soggy layer of warm moisture, and the mere act of drawing breath is a weary challenge.

Sensing that Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) is self-conscious about her appearance,
McBurney (Colin Farrell) lavishes praise about her features and deportment, knowing
full well that she'll melt under such flattery.
A sense that evil spirits prowl during a night so enveloping that stars and fireflies do little to keep the darkness at bay.

Director/scripter Sofia Coppola’s fresh adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s The Beguiled certainly wins points for atmosphere. Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd frames every inch of production designer Anne Ross’ tableaus — interior and exterior — with the reverence of a painter agonizing over each individual brush stroke.

The characters in this unsettling morality play also are well cast, with Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell delivering a level of quiet intensity more frequently experienced with a live Broadway performance. Which also feels appropriate, given that the story’s claustrophobic setting could be realized equally well on a theater stage.

Coppola directs her cast with a sure hand, coaxing performances that fascinate just as much for their protracted silences, as for carefully selected snatches of dialog. Kidman, in particular, conveys a wealth of emotion during moments of circumspect silence.

If only Coppola’s script equaled the rest of her film’s carefully assembled elements.

The tale unfolds in 1864, midway through the Civil War, within the confines of the Farnsworth Seminary, a Southern girls’ boarding school nestled deep in the Virginia woods. The institution is run by Miss Martha (Kidman) and her colleague Edwina (Dunst); they share classroom instruction and the daily reading of prayers.

The student population has dwindled to five, all girls with nowhere else to go. Amy (Oona Laurence), Jane (Angourie Rice), Marie (Addison Riecke) and Emily (Emma Howard) are adolescent, vulnerable and trusting; teenage Alicia (Elle Fanning), hastening the onset of a womanhood she has no means of embracing, carries a whiff of temptress about her.

These seven have become a family, Miss Martha just as much a surrogate mother as a formal teacher. The dynamic, with its daily rituals, feels timeless; they may have sheltered in this vast mansion for mere months, or perhaps years. (The action actually takes place at the Louisiana-based Madewood Plantation House, also borrowed by Beyoncé for her “Sorry” music video.)

Despicable Me 3: Third time isn't the charm

Despicable Me 3 (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang

One should avoid going to the well too often.

At first, Gru (left) is delighted to finally meet Dru, the long-estranged twin brother he never
knew existed. But Dru's wealth, charm and swooningly handsome good looks quickly
prove annoying, particularly since Gru's life and career have bottomed out.
The Despicable Me franchise is showing its age, and for a variety of reasons. Although Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio have scripted all three films — which should ensure continuity of tone and narrative style — they’re clearly running out of ideas. Yes, this third installment is funny (for the most part); and yes, it zips along quickly enough to prevent viewer restlessness.

I’m sure children will be entertained by its colorful wackiness.

But their parents ... not so much. And that’s a shift, because the first two films played far more successfully to all ages.

This film just feels tired, much like bad guy-turned-good guy Gru, referenced by the title. Poor Gru has a constant case of the mopes this time out. Let’s face it: He was a lot more captivating as a villain, when he was, yes, despicable.

Perhaps more insidiously, Gru has been overshadowed by his banana-hued, pint-size subordinates. The Minions are a more fun — and a lot funnier — than anything Gru offers here. And poor Gru seems to know it.

Over at Blue Sky, Chris Wedge and his team have been careful not to let Scrat take over their Ice Age series, instead keeping the prehistoric squirrel/rat on the sidelines, as occasional slapstick relief. Paul, Daurio and returning Despicable co-director Pierre Coffin haven’t been equally cautious, and the result is obvious: The Minions now control the franchise.

Leaving poor Gru a somewhat listless afterthought.

The “despicable” character this time out is Balthazar Bratt (voiced by Trey Parker), a former TV child star who peaked with an evil character his adolescent self played for several seasons in the 1980s. He came complete with signature phrase — “I’ve been a baaaaaad boy!” — and wreaked fictitious havoc on a weekly basis.