Friday, October 20, 2017

Only the Brave: A soaring tribute

Only the Brave (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, occasional profanity, mild sensuality and fleeting drug use

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.20.17

Everything that makes this fact-based drama compelling — and its qualities are many — also will make it a very difficult experience for Northern California viewers.

Having helped to establish a "border" by digging trenches, cutting back small trees and
shrubs, and lighting controlled back burns, Brendan (Miles Teller, left) and Christopher
(Taylor Kitsch) wait to see if their efforts will help diminish an expanding wildfire.
Serendipity is a curious beast, particularly when cinema collides with the real world. The China Syndrome was disparaged as alarmist fantasy when released on March 16, 1979; twelve days later, the film proved eerily prophetic when Pennsylvania’s Dauphin County experienced its Three Mile Island nuclear accident.

Similarly, the folks at Sony/Columbia couldn’t have known, when they scheduled Only the Brave for release today, that California still would be struggling to contain the worst and deadliest series of firestorms in state history. Director Joseph Kosinski and scripters Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer simply wished to venerate the Granite Mountain Hotshots, whose heroic efforts to battle Arizona’s Yarnell Hill Fire made headlines in late June 2013.

The filmmakers achieved that goal. Only the Brave is intelligently scripted, persuasively acted, and sensitively directed: a thoroughly engaging example of heartstring-tugging melodrama. The gripping narrative blends angst, suspense and humor with a spirit of comradely bonding that succeeds because of the care with which the actors tackle their parts.

Numerous characters populate this story, all of them depicted as distinct individuals: a rare thing, when so many high-profile Hollywood projects feature a few stars who overshadow one-dimensional supporting players, who do little but take up space.

At its core, this is a war movie: Instead of man against man, it’s man against nature. Josh Brolin’s Eric Marsh has a telling line, early on, when he leads his team to a mountaintop forest overlook, and encourages the newest recruits to savor the view in the manner of civilian innocents, who admires the majestic ocean of gently swaying green.

Because after having endured a battle against flame, Marsh warns, the next time “You’ll only see fuel.”

Breathe: An extraordinary story, told with grace

Breathe (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and disturbing images

By Derrick Bang

This is — but at the same time, isn’t — what you’re expecting.

The tagline — “With her love, he lived” — implies a poignant drama likely to bring tears, and that’s entirely accurate. But this also is the factual biographical depiction of Robin Cavendish, who was anything but ordinary ... and he sure as hell wasn’t a victim.

An outdoor excursion proves just the ticket for Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield,
reclining), much to the delight of his friends and family: from left, Teddy (Hugh
Bonneville, partially obscured), Diana (Claire Foy), young Jonathan (Harry Marcus)
and David (Tom Hollander)
No matter how old I get — no matter how much time is spent in movie theaters — I marvel at directors and writers who keep finding amazing people who’ve thus far escaped the mainstream attention they deserve. In this case, of course, that’s my American ignorance speaking; I’m sure Cavendish remains a household name to this day, in his native England, just as he must’ve been during his incredible life.

Andy Serkis — a longtime stage actor who became best known for “performing” CGI characters such as Gollum (Lord of the Rings), King Kong and Caesar (Planet of the Apes) — makes an impressive directorial debut with Breathe, the thoroughly engaging saga of Cavendish’s life. Although ample credit also belongs to his stunning ensemble cast, there’s no question that Serkis orchestrates the film with heartfelt respect for his subject.

Scripter William Nicholson — Oscar-nominated for 1993’s Shadowlands, and for his collaborative work on 2000’s Gladiator — handles this challenge with intelligence, sensitivity and far more spontaneous humor than one would think possible. Although Cavendish endured what most would consider a tragedy, that descriptor does not characterize this film; it’s astonishing, how often Nicholson evokes gentle laughter.

That must have been one of the key goals, because — more than anything — Cavendish demanded to be accepted and treated like everybody else ... which is to say, like “normal” people.

On top of which, Serkis and Nicholson had the best possible guidance: One of this film’s producers is Jonathan Cavendish, Robin’s son, who with Serkis runs the production company Imaginarium Studios. Bringing his father’s story to the big screen obviously was a labor of love for Jonathan, and — this, too, is a small miracle — his devotion to the material didn’t interfere with what has emerged as a remarkably tender and thoroughly uplifting film.

The story opens in the late 1950s. As introduced during a spirited cricket match, Robin (Andrew Garfield) is every inch the dashing, ex-British Army officer. In a few deftly constructed scenes, Serkis and Nicholson establish the love-at-first-sight speed with which Robin falls for the aristocratic Diana Blacker (Claire Foy, immediately recognized as young Queen Elizabeth II, in TV’s The Crown). She’s equally smitten, and they marry.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Foreigner: Not to be ignored

The Foreigner (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for violence, profanity and some sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.13.17

This film likely isn’t on your radar.

It should be.

Irish Deputy Minister Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan, right) is kind enough to grant some
time to Quan Ngoc Minh (Jackie Chan), who hopes to learn the identity of the terrorists
who killed his daughter, back in London. The meeting ... does not go well.
Director Martin Campbell and scripter David Marconi have transformed prolific British thriller author Stephen Leather’s 1992 novel, The Chinaman, into a crackerjack espionage drama: an absolutely perfect vehicle for star Jackie Chan, shrewdly playing a character his actual age (63 years young).

And while it’s true that the beloved martial arts sensation no longer hurls himself out of trees, or through multiple plate-glass windows, he still has moves. Plenty of them.

Marconi’s script is a clever update of Leather’s novel, which was written while the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s brutal bombing campaign was climaxing (and which, mercifully, would conclude with a cease-fire in 1997). This big-screen adaptation benefits from taut direction, crisp editing and a devious narrative laden with twists and double-crosses.

And, most of all, from Chan’s captivating portrayal of a character who completely wins our hearts and minds.

The contemporary setting introduces Quan Ngoc Minh (Chan) as a quiet London restaurateur, who dotes on his teenage daughter, Fan (Katie Leung): the sole family member left after a couple of earlier tragedies. Campbell and Marconi deftly sketch their loving relationship during a prologue that feels ominous because of its mundane normality.

Our fears prove justified, when Fan’s enthusiastic dive into a dress shop turns tragic as a terrorist bomb goes off. Credit for the heinous act is claimed by a group calling itself The Authentic IRA.

Although swept into in a maelstrom of grief that threatens to drown him — Chan’s expression and body language are heartbreaking, during these early scenes — Quan patiently, doggedly navigates “proper channels” in an effort to secure a piece of information that he deems naïvely simple: the name, or names, of the bombers.

He finally gains a chat with Commander Richard Bromley (Ray Fearon), head of the British anti-terrorist task force charged with investigating the attack. Although sympathetic, Bromley assures Quan that his team is doing everything possible, and sends him home. But Quan cannot let it rest, much to the mounting concern of his restaurant partner, Lam (Tao Liu), who clearly loves him.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women: A few notes shy of wonderful

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for strong sexual content, profanity, brief nudity and fleeting graphic images

By Derrick Bang

Although persuasively acted, sensitively directed and reasonably faithful to established fact, writer/director Angela Robinson’s take on comic book heroine Wonder Woman most frequently feels like a giddy endorsement of unconventional sexual lifestyles.

Flush with the "forbidden" delights of their blossoming three-way relationship, Elizabeth
Marston (Rebecca Hall, left), her husband William (Luke Evans) and their "plus one"
Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) unwisely fail to consider how their behavior will affect
fellow Tufts University faculty and students.
Goodness knows, the actual saga tops the Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction List, as recently revealed via comprehensive feature stories from National Public Radio, Smithsonian Magazine and The New Yorker, along with — most particularly — Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s fascinating 2015 book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Robinson had no shortage of research material, from which to draw.

But while the world’s best-known female superhero has been made the selling point of this unusual big-screen biography — the character’s status having accelerated exponentially, thanks to summer’s smash-hit film — Wonder Woman is mostly incidental to the story being told here. Robinson had other things on her mind.

The saga begins in 1925, as Harvard-trained psychologist William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) begins teaching a large assemblage of young women at Tufts University. His wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) is a ubiquitous presence, forever perched in the classroom window seat. An equally accredited psychologist and lawyer, she sharply observes — and records, via jotted notes — how the students respond, individually and as a group, during her husband’s lectures.

William and Elizabeth are a prickly but passionately devoted team, in and out of the classroom. He’s smooth, intelligent and seductively persuasive: a silver-tongued orator who’d have made a terrific snake-oil salesman. She’s bluntly combative, judgmental, sharp-tongued and even more ferociously smart. They constantly challenge each other, even as they love and collaborate in numerous endeavors ... not the least of which is the development of a functional lie-detector device.

In class, William’s gaze is drawn to the radiantly gorgeous Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), a senior who becomes his research assistant ... which is to say, she becomes their research assistant. William ostensibly insists that Olive is the perfect subject with whom to explore the active/passive aspects of a “DISC theory” — dominance, inducement, submission and compliance — that he believes governs all human behavior.

In reality, he just wants to bed Olive. Which Elizabeth realizes full well, and about which she’s ambivalent. At initial blush, William’s desire seems a non-starter; the quietly shy Olive, a seemingly conservative sorority girl, is engaged to a Nice Young Man.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Blade Runner 2049: Future imperfect

Blade Runner 2049 (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence, profanity, nudity and sexuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.6.17

I suppose we should be grateful that things haven’t deteriorated nearly as much as the original Blade Runner suggested ... given that it was set in 2019.

That said, the film’s envisaged weather anomalies no longer seem as unlikely.

Los Angeles Police Department Officer Kay (Ryan Gosling), pausing for a quick meal,
little realizes that he's about to be approached by a trio of seductive "doxies"
interested solely in the photographs that he has been studying.
It’s also amusing to recall that Ridley Scott’s magnum opus was a critical and audience bomb upon release in 1982: wholly bewildering to viewers who couldn’t wrap their brains around retro sci-fi noir, and who were disturbed by the notion of Han Solo/Indiana Jones playing such a morally conflicted character.

Funny, how things can change. Blade Runner now is regarded as one of the all-time great sci-fi classics, praised for the same distinctive vision and thoughtful narrative complexity that originally baffled folks. Scott has tweaked and re-edited the film more times than I can remember, fine-tuning it to match his original vision (which was compromised by unwelcome eleventh-hour editing, prior to release).

While his film didn’t necessarily beg for a sequel, the setting and core premise certainly invite fresh examination. Few filmmakers are better equipped to do so than director Denis Villeneuve, who helmed last year’s marvelously meditative Arrival, and co-writer Hampton Fancher, who helped adapt Philip K. Dick’s source novel into the first film. Fancher is assisted this time by co-scripter Michael Green, and they’ve definitely retained the brooding atmosphere that makes the setting so compelling.

The setting’s persuasively chilling authenticity, in turn, comes courtesy of production designer Dennis Gassner and visual effects supervisor John Nelson, carrying forward the arresting tableaus designed for the first film by Douglas Trumbull and David Dryer. No other word suffices: This new film looks amazing.

And very, very unsettling.

The story is again based in Los Angeles, although the narrative expands to include the entire state. Every square inch of land in Central California has been covered by massive hydroponic facilities necessitated by a climate shift — nothing but furious rain, dust and snow storms — that has destroyed any semblance of a natural growing season. Such enhanced output also is required to feed an expanding population with an exponentially huge homeless faction: The disenfranchised no longer camp out merely on sidewalks; they also squat in apartment corridors, jeering at those fortunate enough to have their own residences.

Advertising has run even further amok, further amplified by a salacious element that suggests the complete absence of spiritual content. There’s a sense of society’s very fabric coming unstitched, with order barely maintained by officers working for the immense police department building that looms above all else.

Well ... almost all else.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Battle of the Sexes: A match made in heaven

Battle of the Sexes (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for sexual content and brief nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.29.17

An estimated 90 million people around the world parked in front of TV sets on Sept. 20, 1973, in order to watch what became a defining moment in sports, American culture and — most particularly — the rising momentum for women’s equality.

When she agrees to the challenge issued by Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), Billy Jean King
(Emma Stone) also gamely endures the media circus that precedes the historic event.
At the same time, the so-called “Battle of the Sexes” was pure circus.

On top of which, one of the participants was struggling with sexual identity, at a time when such matters scarcely were tolerated in this country, let alone allowed to go public.

That’s a lot of baggage for a single two-hour film to handle, and its success is a tribute to pedigree: Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks), along with Academy Award-winning scripter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), have concocted a thoughtful, perceptive and thoroughly entertaining dramedy that blends tender romance, historical context and an undercurrent of sly outrage over the degree of unapologetic chauvinism that was fashionable a mere four decades ago.

Add two stars who skillfully adopt the identities of their real-world counterparts — to a frequently spooky degree — and the result is quite engaging.

The story begins in 1971, as Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and good friend Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) — a hard-nosed PR and tennis maven — confront longtime tennis promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) over the insulting disparity between the financial prizes earned by male and female champions. Kramer holds firm with the prevailing view that women aren’t “worth” parity.

In response, King and Heldman — with considerable assistance from King’s husband, Larry (Austin Stowell) — form their own nascent women’s league (which, within a few years, would become the Women’s Tennis Association). It’s a gutsy move, since Kramer immediately expels them from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association. The players — which include King, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales) and half a dozen others — nonetheless adopt a spunky guerrilla spirit, booking their own venues, posting promotional banners, and selling their own tickets.

Matters improve when the group receives full sponsorship from Philip Morris, for what becomes known as the Virginia Slims Tour.

Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), decades removed from his professional championships in the 1940s, frets over his own obsolescence. He chafes behind a useless desk job, supported by a wealthy wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), who is losing her tolerance for his chronic gambling habit. But as a longtime hustler and media-savvy opportunist, Riggs smells publicity after learning what King and her cohorts are up to.

And so comes the challenge, from the man who proudly promises to keep the “show” in chauvinism.

American Made: The satiric veneration of a scoundrel

American Made (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for relentless profanity and occasional nudity

By Derrick Bang

The only thing more unsettling than this film, is the possibility that the truth is even worse.

Barry Seal (Tom Cruise, left) hands an envelope stuffed with cash to Manuel Noriega
(Alberto Ospino, right), in exchange for a folder containing unspecified intel: merely one
of various questionable activities that Barry undertakes on behalf of the CIA.
The notorious Barry Seal’s jaw-dropping career has long screamed for big-screen treatment, and director Doug Liman’s American Made wisely casts the saga as a personality-driven dark comedy that transforms Seal’s illicit activities into the stuff of overstated burlesque. Tom Cruise is absolutely perfect for the role, his ear-splitting grin and smug swagger delivering the charisma that everybody acknowledged was Seal’s greatest asset.

At the same time, there’s no question that Gary Spinelli’s script — he acknowledges none of the existing books about Seal — sugar-coats a lot of bad things, time-shifts others, baldly fabricates events, and outright ignores some of his subject’s worst character deficiencies. The result would play well on a double-bill with Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, which similarly turned the heinous behavior of opportunistic swindler Jordan Belfort into the stuff of dark farce.

Both films are slick, fast-paced and thoroughly engaging: no question, a lot of fun to watch. Both also add an eyebrow-raising layer of sophisticated exhilaration to the illicit behavior of their respective subjects, as if to suggest they’re modern updates of E.W. Hornung’s debonair gentleman burglar, A.J. Raffles.

To be fair, Liman and Spinelli have the added advantage of what could be termed the “Barry Seal mystique”: the ongoing uncertainty that revolves around the degree to which his activities were — or weren’t — tolerated, if indeed orchestrated, by various U.S. intelligence, drug and government entities. No question: This film will be loved by conspiracy theorists, and particularly by those willing to assume the worst of the Reagan-era administration.

Spinelli goes all in, accepting and expanding upon rumors that Seal operated with the full awareness and cooperation of everything from the CIA to the DEA and those involved with Nancy Reagan’s “war on drugs.” Along the way, the saga suggests Seal’s intimate involvement with everybody from Pablo Escobar and Manuel Noriega, to Bill Clinton, Oliver North and the Iran/Contra scandal. Even a young George W. Bush gets a brief but telling moment (with a line of dialogue guaranteed to raise a smile).

Cruise’s distracting strut aside, careful attention must be paid to the way Liman constructs his film, most particularly with respect to the implications of his framing device. The bulk of the narrative may feel like an intoxicating roller coaster ride, but Liman carefully maintains an undertone of anxiety and outright danger.