Friday, April 20, 2018

I Feel Pretty: Sweet self-empowerment saga

I Feel Pretty (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for fleeting nudity, sexual candor and profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.20.18

Here’s a nice surprise.

Few actors could rebound so successfully from a bomb the size of last year’s Snatched, but Amy Schumer has managed a reasonably graceful landing.

Believing that their chances of scoring online dates will increase if they tackle the problem
en masse, Vivian (Aidy Bryant, left), Jane (Busy Philipps) and Renee (Amy Schumer)
strike a pose for a group selfie.
I Feel Pretty blends (mostly) gentle romantic comedy with a well-delivered message on the importance of self-worth: of being not merely resigned to the hand one has been dealt, but celebrating it, each and every day. That’s a valuable lesson in an era when, everywhere we look, we’re encouraged to emulate — nay, become — akin to the media-splashed icons of physical perfection who surround us.

An impossible task. And one that can’t help feeding natural insecurities.

High fives, then, to Schumer and the writing/directing team of Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, for concocting such a (mostly) delightful rebuttal to such nonsense.

(The “mostly” applies because Schumer indulges in occasional bits of needless vulgarity that — in each case — briefly bring the film to a screeching halt. Apparently she can’t help herself.)

New Yorker Renee Bennett (Schumer) lives each day beneath a hovering cloud of low self-esteem and minimal expectations, convinced that she’s not “good enough” to share space with those who invariably seem to be something “better.” Such feelings are exacerbated by her job: toiling mostly unseen in a basement server room as one of two employees who handle Internet orders for cosmetic giant Lily LeClair’s upscale Fifth Avenue headquarters.

Renee shares this grimy garret with the misanthropic Mason (Adrian Martinez, an understated hoot), who — were he asked — probably prefers such surroundings.

Down time is spent with best buds Jane (Busy Philipps) and Vivian (Aidy Bryant); they collectively view themselves as three musketeers mounting frequent assaults on dating web sites ... never breaking past the outer ramparts.

And everywhere Renee goes — whether spin class at SoulCycle, or infrequent visits to Lily LeClair HQ — she’s all but invisible to the beautiful people who surround her. With one exception: Mallory (Emily Ratajkowski), who, despite being a flawless model like so many others, is a genuine human being with both heart and soul.

No surprise, then, that Renee — at a despairing low point — impulsively makes a big, tall wish (after seeing the similar moment while catching up with the movie Big).

Friday, April 13, 2018

Beirut: A savvy espionage thriller

Beirut (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence and profanity

By Derrick Bang

Tony Gilroy has a flair for placing compelling characters at the heart of world-shattering events, whether wholly imagined or extracted from actual history, thereby involving viewers on a more comprehensible and intimate level.

Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm, center) quickly realizes that he has been dragged back to
Beirut under false pretenses, the actual reasons soon to be explained by CIA
operatives Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike) and Donald Gaines (Dean Norris).
He tells complex stories through the eyes of just a few (more or less) ordinary folks, often in a manner that feels Hitchcockian: the hero besieged on all sides, uncertain who to trust, often in way over his head. This talent brought Gilroy a well-deserved Oscar nomination for 2007’s Michael Clayton, and he did a similarly fine job on the 2009 adaptation of State of Play.

Then, too, Gilroy knows his way around adrenaline-charged espionage thrillers, having scripted — and, in one case, directed — four of the recent Bourne entries.

All these elements are in play with Beirut, an audaciously clever and suspenseful drama set during the eponymous city’s catastrophic transition from picturesque cultural melting pot to violence-ridden war zone. The focus is on one man who reluctantly returns to a land he once loved, but which now yields only nightmares, and has become ludicrously dangerous: where “truth,” if it exists at all, emerges only when it’s convenient ... or, more likely, when it’s profitable.

Gilroy’s story can’t help feeling far-fetched, particularly as matters grow increasingly complicated. But, sadly, it probably isn’t.

We meet American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) under happy circumstances in 1972, hosting a lavish dinner party at his Beirut estate; the attendees include dignitaries, movers and shakers from various neighboring countries, and even an American senator. Mason is at his best, gliding from one guest to another: telling an insightful story here, facilitating a mutually beneficial introduction there.

It becomes clear, from Mason’s smooth patter, that he’s a fixer: a negotiator (and, frankly, that would have been a better title for this film) able to analyze both people and situations with uncanny accuracy. “Don’t play poker with him,” somebody later cautions, when describing Mason.

The party’s carefully established convivial balance tips with the late arrival of Mason’s best friend, CIA agent Cal Rily (Mark Pellegrino). Moments later — likely not coincidence — the gathering erupts in lethally violent chaos. Mason’s world is shattered in a heartbeat.

Rampage: Nothing but noise

Rampage (2018) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, and quite generously, for violence, gore, destruction, dramatic intensity and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

Art often responds to life.

Back in the 1950s, rising Cold War paranoia and atomic-era anxiety prompted Hollywood to uncork a series of “giant whatzis” movies: giant ants (Them), giant spiders (Tarantula), giant scorpions (The Black Scorpion), and even — I’m not making this up — giant grasshoppers (Beginning of the End).

With Chicago being demolished by a couple of extremely nasty monsters, can one man and
his faithful albino gorilla companion make a difference? This flick would like you to
think so...
These days, the night terrors are induced by misguided genetic editing and greed-driven corporate malfeasance. But the results are the same: giant whatzis movies.

And, frankly, Rampage isn’t much better than most of those 1950s clunkers.

Modern golly-gee-wow special effects can’t conceal the fact that this is a laughably inept flick fueled by a bone-stupid script that can’t even follow its own interior logic. (Actually, “logic” and Rampage are oxymorons.) Four writers take the blame for this kitchen-sink mess — Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal and Adam Sztykiel — and I’m amazed they had the collective chutzpah to demand credit for stuff they swiped from other films, and then stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster.

But, then, what can we expect of a movie “developed” from an arcade game?

I wish Mystery Science Theater 3000 still were around; the ’bots would have a great time dissing this dumb turkey.

In fairness, Rampage has one thing going for it: the incandescent presence of Dwayne Johnson. He may have rolled his eyes in private, when the script pages were delivered, but he nonetheless gives an impressively earnest performance. Those who doubt the power of “movie star charisma” need look no further than this misbegotten flick.

Director Brad Peyton certainly doesn’t bring anything to the party; he basically points and shoots, hoping that Johnson’s reasonably well-timed quips will compensate for the sins that sheer momentum can’t conceal. The two of them did the same a few years ago, when they teamed for San Andreas.

To cases, then:

During a prologue that’s a blatant mash-up (and rip-off) of Gravity and Life, we learn that Chicago-based Wyden Technologies, via their Energyne genetics lab, has been conducting naughty — and highly illegal — experiments in an orbiting space station. Things go awry; three small canisters containing Bad Stuff hurl through our atmosphere, meteorite-like, and plow into different parts of the United States.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Pandas: Far more than mere pandemonium

Pandas (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated G, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang

The English language isn’t up to the challenge of discussing this film.

The usual go-to words — cute, adorable — simply aren’t sufficient.

In the safety of China's Chengdu Panda Base, American
conservation biologist Jake Owens soon develops an
impressive bond with Qian Qian, a young, captive-born
female panda that he and fellow scientists hope to
introduce into the wild.
Pandas clearly is being marketed on the basis of its awwwwwww factor; IMAX and Warner Bros. would be foolish to do otherwise. And, yes, this 43-minute charmer spends considerable time with the poignant and often hilarious antics of roly-poly infant pandas: sequences that we wish could run longer, because they’re just too, ah, cute for words.

But the best IMAX documentaries also draw their emotional power from a compelling through-story, and this one’s no different. Filmmakers David Douglas and Drew Fellman — who also brought us 2011’s Born to Be Wild and 2014’s Islands of Lemurs: Madagascar — focus on China’s noble effort to avert catastrophe, by reversing a man-made crisis.

Specifically, the decline of the giant panda population, as a result of their traditional habitat being drastically reduced by human development. As narrator Kristen Bell soberly informs us, toward the beginning of this film, roughly 300 pandas currently are in captivity in facilities (zoos, etc.) around the globe, and only about 2,000 remain in the wild. And the latter are divided into isolated pockets within central China’s Sichuan, Shaanzi and Gansu Provinces, thereby minimizing gene pools and preventing the desired cross-breeding that would enhance hybrid vigor.

A potential solution, long in coming, began with a captive breeding program at the Chengdu Panda Base, where scientist Hou Rong has been director of research since 1994. Douglas and Fellman begin their film by introducing her, along with the most recent infants — some reference sources insist on the term “cupboard,” for a group of pandas — among the more than 200 baby pandas that have been born and raised during her tenure.

The current goal of this soft-spoken “Panda Mom” is to facilitate the release, into the wild, of at least some of her clinic-bred charges. Her desire to maximize the chances of success takes her across the globe, to the woods of northeast New Hampshire, in order to collaborate with Ben Kilham. Back in 1992, he and his sister Phoebe were granted a state license to rehabilitate orphaned black bear cubs; since then, the Kilham Bear Center has successfully returned more than 160 cubs to the wild.

We’re granted intimate access not only to the eight-acre enclosure that provides these cubs with everything they need to socialize, climb trees and forage for food; but also to the endearingly boisterous, yet oddly intimate process of bottle-feeding three tiny cubs in the Kilham living room.

The Miracle Season: Failure to spike

The Miracle Season (2018) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.6.18

Inspirational sports sagas tend to be bullet-proof, and even this one builds to an exhilarating climax.

Getting there, however, is another matter entirely.

Caroline "Line" Found (Danika Yarosh, No, 9) and a cluster of her teammates — from left,
Kelley Fliehler (Erin Moriarty, No. 19), Taylor (Lillian Doucet-Roche, No. 14), Brie (Tiera
Skovbye, No. 8) and Mack (Natalie Sharp) — get ready for another intense volleyball drill.
Granted, The Miracle Season is based on actual events, but that’s no excuse for director Sean McNamara — aided and abetted by scripters David Aaron Cohen and Elissa Matsuida — to lard the pathos with a trowel. So many tight-tight-tight close-ups of tears and quivering lips. The pregnant pauses, long-suffering sighs and anguished glances heavenward. Melodramatic dialogue so insufferably sugary-sweet that it’ll send insulin-dependent viewers into a diabetic coma. The swelling orchestral flourishes from Roque BaƱos’ histrionic score.

McNamara makes no secret of his desire to craft — whether as director, writer or producer — wholesome, family-friendly dramas; one need only read his IMDB bio. That’s well and good, but there’s a chasm of atmospheric distinction between “wholesome” and “gag-inducing sentimental slush.”

I kept waiting for some of this film’s performers to throw up their arms, burst into a heartrending Shakespearean soliloquy, and expire on camera.

It genuinely grieves me to be so mean-spirited, given McNamara’s sincere intent, and the authentic real-world tragedy-turned-triumph that inspired his film ... but that’s the problem. He tries much, much too hard; he should have had more faith in the strength of the story itself, and trusted his audience to “get it,” without jerking his puppet master strings so blatantly. And repeatedly.

The setting is Iowa City’s West High School, where newly minted seniors and longtime best buds Caroline Found (Danika Yarosh) and Kelley Fliehler (Erin Moriarty) eagerly await the start of volleyball season, revved up to repeat their previous year’s championship victory. Coach Kathy “Brez” Bresnahan (Helen Hunt), while sharing this desire, wisely cautions against cockiness and entitlement.

As a redundant voice-over narrator needlessly informs us, during a Hallmark greeting-card prologue, Caroline — everybody calls her “Line” — is one of the magical, charismatic wonders who inspires everybody to be better versions of themselves.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Ready Player One: Game on!

Ready Player One (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, sci-fi action violence, bloody images, suggestive content, partial nudity and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.30.18

Pop-culture junkies will love this one.

I haven’t had so much fun with an iconic characters mash-up since Daffy Duck met Donald Duck, in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

As Aech (far left) and Art3mis (far right) listen attentively, Parzival queries the Curator
about a particularly telling incident in the life of the eccentric genius who created the
virtual reality enviroment in which they spend so much time.
While there’s no question that Ready Player One will resonate most with avid video gamers — and folks whose homes are clustered with artifacts from the 1980s — this exuberant sci-fi/fantasy certainly is approachable to mainstream viewers. It’s brash, boisterous and breathtaking by turns, and augmented at all times by the cinematic sense of wonder that Steven Spielberg has brought to his films since, well, seems like forever. (And aren’t we lucky?)

That said, the narrative — co-scripted by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, from the latter’s popular 2011 novel — relies more on momentum than plot logic and common sense. Viewers are likely to exit the theater with plenty of questions that begin with the phrase “But what about...?” Even so, it’s not entirely soulless eye-candy; a strong cautionary note beats at the heart of this fast-paced thrill ride.

One hopes that civilization won’t come to this ... although I also whispered that fervent prayer after seeing 1982’s Blade Runner the first time. And just as that film has proven prophetic in a variety of disturbing ways, there’s enough current self-indulgent behavior to suggest that the message illuminated by Ready Player One should be taken very seriously.

The year is 2045, and our young hero — Wade Watts, played by Tye Sheridan — lives in “the Stacks”: a rundown vertical trailer park in Columbus, Ohio. (High fives to production designer Adam Stockhausen, for this terrifying vision of the near future’s life on the edge.) He shares this tight space with his grouchy aunt and her nasty, loser boyfriend; unemployment, poverty, overcrowding and utter hopelessness are rampant.

The U.S. government apparently has abandoned any pretense of environmental mitigation, human rights, corporate restraint or beneficial socio-political oversight; “outlying” cities such as Columbus have simply become huge trash heaps of discarded vehicles and other manufacturing refuse. The (rather too vague) impression is that the country has been split between the lucky 5 percent in the tech sector ... and everybody else.

In other words, life in the real world ain’t too good.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Isle of Dogs: A tail-wagging triumph

Isle of Dogs (2018) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and some violent images

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.23.18

This one is a treasure.

Wes Anderson’s films are eccentric — to say the least — but, over time, his unique brand of quirk has become ever more beguiling. Recall that 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel won four of its nine Academy Award nominations, and that Anderson has earned six nominations himself, dating back to a scripting nod for 2002’s The Royal Tennenbaums.

Twelve-year-old Atari, in an act of defiance against his guardian, the mayor of Megasaki
City, isn't about to let his beloved pet remain quarantined with all the other dogs on an
outlying "trash island."
One of the other six was earned when he helmed 2010’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, an engagingly warped adaptation of Roald Dahl’s droll little tale, presented via an insane amount of painstakingly detailed stop-motion puppet animation.

Anderson has returned to that form with Isle of Dogs, and it’s a work of even more incandescent brilliance: a thoroughly enchanting underdog fable for our time, and a similarly stunning achievement in puppet animation, and the jaw-droppingly detailed micro-sets they inhabit.

The only applicable descriptor — a term not to be used lightly — is awesome.

But the film isn’t merely fun to watch; it’s also powered by a genius storyline co-written by Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura (the latter a Japanese writer, DJ, radio personality and occasional actor who made brief appearances in Lost in Translation and, yes, The Grand Budapest Hotel).

As often is the case with animated films, it’s difficult to praise the “acting” per se, since the characters aren’t flesh and blood. And yet there’s no doubt that Anderson — alongside animation director Mark Waring, and puppet master Andy Gent — has coaxed impressively sensitive performances from his many stars. Line readings perfectly match facial expressions and body language; double-takes and comic timing are delivered with the impeccable mastery of a stand-up veteran.

In short, we couldn’t be more engaged if these were “real” performers ... which would be impossible, of course, since dogs don’t talk.

But you may come away from this film thinking they do.