Friday, January 19, 2018

The Post: Fast-breaking drama

The Post (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for profanity and brief war violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.19.18

Although Steven Spielberg’s riveting new film gets most of its dramatic heft from the democracy-threatening events that swirled around the release of the Pentagon Papers in June of 1971, we’re most emotionally involved with the plight of Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham: at the time, the only woman in a position of power at a major national newspaper.

The entire Washington Post editorial staff — including executive editor Ben Bradlee and
publisher Katharine Graham (Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, third and fourth from left) —
reacts with stunned silence after learning that The New York Times has been forced, by
a federal injunction, to cease reporting on the Pentagon Papers.
As the film begins, and as we’re introduced to Graham via Meryl Streep’s thoroughly engaging performance, the poor woman is hopelessly — helplessly — out of her depth.

We spend almost the entire film waiting for her epiphany, and for the “Meryl Streep moment” when the actress — Graham finally having found her spine — verbally eviscerates one of her patronizing male colleagues.

It’s a long wait ... and well worth the anticipation.

The Post isn’t opportune merely as a reminder — at a time when the White House is occupied by an infantile gadfly who defends his lies by screaming “Fake news!” — of the crucial role played by our Fourth Estate. Scripters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer couldn’t have known, as their film was being shaped, that its parallel focus on Graham would resonate so well at a moment when American women have risen en masse to challenge male hegemony.

The resulting drama serves both mindsets, while also taking its place alongside top-drawer journalism dramas such as All the President’s Men and Spotlight (the latter having brought Singer — also a veteran of TV’s West Wing — an Academy Award).

The sequence of events taking place during just a few days in the early summer of 1971 almost defy credibility. The film opens on a sidebar issue, as Graham prepares for a presentation to The Washington Post Company board of directors, in anticipation of raising badly needed capital via a stock offering when the paper goes public, on June 15.

Streep’s Graham is nervous and flustered, despite having solid notes prepared with the assistance of longtime friend and confidant Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts, nicely understated), a former Wall Street lawyer and chairman of the board. Even before knowing anything about this woman, we feel for her; Streep makes her anxiety palpable.

We therefore groan inwardly, when — her moment having come — she’s too tongue-tied even to speak, and her carefully prepared details are introduced by Fritz.

This is before Graham learns, a few days later, that the stock offering could be scuttled by her paper’s growing involvement in the nation-shattering spat between Richard Nixon and The New York Times: the first time, in the history of the republic, that a U.S. president has attempted to silence a national newspaper.

12 Strong: An enthralling, fact-based war drama

12 Strong (2018) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for war violence and profanity

By Derrick Bang

It’s easy to see why Jerry Bruckheimer and his co-producers were drawn to author/journalist Doug Stanton’s 2009 non-fiction best-seller. The title alone is an eyebrow-lifter:

Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan.

Despite his best efforts, Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth, left) has trouble gaining
the trust of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), who doubts that such a
young American, who lacks "killer eyes," can become a true warrior.
Stanton’s book details the jaw-dropping, just-then-declassified exploits of the 12-man Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 595 Green Berets team, one of the first American units sent to Afghanistan in the immediate wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack. (Bruckheimer obtained the book in galley format, prior to publication.)

This big-screen adaptation, saddled with the appropriately gung-ho title of 12 Strong, is a suspenseful and riveting depiction of the events that took place during the 23 days that the ODA 595 team was “in country.” Director Nicolai Fuglsig, scripters Ted Tally and Peter Craig, and a solid cast appropriately honor the actual men, while delivering a thoroughly entertaining film that frequently feels like a slice of old-style Hollywood, while building to one helluva climax.

Indeed, this film stands tall alongside “impossible odds” classics such as Seven Samurai, Blackhawk Down, Saving Private Ryan and, most particularly, 1964’s Zulu. The latter also focuses on the mis-matched resources — albeit the other way ’round — that prompted this famous on-site quote from Afghanistan’s Capt. Will Summers: “It was as if the Jetsons had met the Flintstones.”

Add more than a passing nod to Lawrence of Arabia, and you’ve got a genuinely awe-inspiring war epic.

Tally and Craig have changed the names, and no doubt other details have been amplified for cinematic impact. But the core mission, the manner in which it went down, and the outcome are impressively faithful, and why not? This saga was made for splashy, big-screen treatment.

The drama is anchored solidly by Chris Hemsworth, who has emerged as one of cinema’s most stalwart and charismatic actors. His rise is quite impressive: only six years since an attention-getting supporting turn in The Cabin in the Woods, and now sliding with equal persuasiveness from the comic book larkishness of Thor and Ghostbusters, to more serious dramatic fare such as In the Heart of the Sea and, now, 12 Strong.

We believe it, utterly, when one of Nelson’s men tells him, with complete sincerity, “I’d follow you anywhere.” Hemsworth’s Nelson radiates that level of command charisma.

Den of Thieves: Find other accommodations

Den of Thieves (2018) • View trailer 
1.5 stars. Rated R, for violence, relentless profanity, sexuality and nudity

By Derrick Bang

This is a vile, vulgar and violent slice of exploitative trash.

Which is a shame, because there’s a rather clever heist thriller — with an audacious final twist — buried beneath writer/director Christian Gudegast’s boatload of moral squalor.

"Big Nick" O'Brien (Gerard Butler, right) can't figure out what a crew of professional bank
robbers might be up to ... which is no surprise, since O'Brien appears to have the
intelligence of a cranberry.
Gudegast will be recalled as the scribe behind 2016’s atrociously mean-spirited and deplorably xenophobic London Has Fallen, and his sensibilities haven’t changed. Once upon a time, action heroes took pains to avoid needless collateral civilian fatalities, but no more; these days, blasting unlucky bystanders is merely part of the business-as-usual body count.

Really, there’s little difference between the good guys and bad guys. Which appears to be how Gudegast sees the world.

He’s also unpardonably sexist: Almost all the women in this testosterone-fueled swill are whores, or strippers, or both. The one exception is our (supposedly) good guy’s long-suffering wife, who pops up just long enough to announce that she’s leaving him, and taking their two young daughters, for their own protection.

It shows good taste on the part of actress Dawn Olivieri, who apparently bolted from the set as quickly as possible.

This crime saga is set in Los Angeles, which an introductory text crawl boldly proclaims is the “bank robbery capital of the world” — which hasn’t been true for at least 20 years — and then offers, as “supporting facts,” some overblown statistics that, aside from being ludicrously inaccurate, also suffer from bad math. (What, did nobody notice?)

Getting this information dump in the first few minutes, against the throbbing pulse of Cliff Martinez’s painfully loud synth score, does not bode well for what follows.

That sinking feeling proved more prophetic, as Gudegast’s story wore on.

Den of Thieves is an insufferably macho battle of wits and tough-talking swagger between L.A. Sheriff’s Department icon “Big” Nick O’Brien (Gerard Butler) and special forces veteran-turned-bank robber Ray Merriman (Pablo Schreiber). O’Brien heads the Regulators, an elite major crimes squad — apparently answerable to nobody — while Merriman runs the Outlaws, a gang of ex-military men with exceptional expertise and tactical skills.

Caught in the middle: Donnie Wilson (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), an ex-con bartender with a facility for fast cars, who’s forced by O’Brien to spy on the Outlaws when Merriman hires him as a getaway driver.

Phantom Thread: A clumsily stitched melodrama

Phantom Thread (2017) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity and brief nudity

By Derrick Bang

I simply cannot fathom the waves of critical adulation lapping onto the shores of this dramatic snooze of a film.

Having decided that Alma (Vicky Krieps) is to become his new lover and muse, celebrated
fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) naturally insists on creating a
dress for her.
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson may have framed every scene with the care and precision that Reynolds Woodcock employs while making his haute couture dresses and gowns, but the story and characters remain unpalatable, the pacing lethargic, and the result about as appealing as waiting for paint to dry.

In short — although the viewing experience seems to last forever — Phantom Thread is a crushing bore.

Anderson’s films are always challenging at best; they range from weirdly captivating (Inherent Vice, Boogie Nights), to distastefully bizarre (There Will Be Blood, Magnolia), to utterly unwatchable (The Master). His characters invariably are grotesque burlesques: parodies of actual people, exaggerated to make a peculiar narrative point that rarely has anything to do with the actual human condition.

Based on his artistic output, Anderson feels like a misanthrope.

Phantom Thread is no different. Despite the luxurious world in which these people inhabit, laced with beautiful things, their souls are ugly and cruel. They deserve each other ... which I suspect is Anderson’s ultimate point, but hardly an epiphany on which to hang a 130-minute movie.

The setting is post-WWII London in the 1950s, at the House of Woodcock, where the imperious Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis) lives and designs at the center of British fashion: lavishly expensive creations coveted by royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutants and their ilk. The firm’s mostly silent staff caters to every caprice and demand of their fussy, fastidious and anal-retentive lord and master; the stiffly condescending Reynolds expects no less.

Business matters and other “unpleasant details” are handled by his starch-collared sister Cyril (Lesley Manville); such details include hustling each of his casual lovers out the door, once he tires of their companionship ... which, we gather, is a frequent occurrence. Each, during her short stay, supplies a smidgen of inspiration drawn from personality and physique; each departs having been transformed, to a degree, into a “better” version of herself.

Reynolds also is an unrepentant sexist pig: a coldly calculating martinet who doesn’t even seem to like his most loyal and devoted clients. The dynamic feels like an uncomfortable gothic mash-up of Pygmalion and Rebecca, with Manville’s Cyril standing in as the chilly, omnipresent Mrs. Danvers.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Mudbound: Superb character study

Mudbound (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for dramatic intensity, disturbing violence, profanity and nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.12.18

This film likely hasn’t been on most folks’ radar, given its unconventional distribution.

That needs to change.

As their friendship develops, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, right) insists that Ronsel
(Jason Mitchell) ride alongside in the front of his truck, rather than — as local custom
demands — back in the bed. This "familiarity" will not go unnoticed.
Director/co-scripter Dee Rees’ compelling adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound boasts impeccable acting and a narrative too infrequently addressed these days: humble people just trying to get by. Rees’ film shares these sensibilities with classics such as the 1940 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and the 1941 adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley (both directed by John Ford).

The all-important distinction is that Jordan’s saga gets additional dramatic heft from its depiction of the wary, prickly dynamic that passed for “race relations” in the post-WWII Deep South. Recent films addressing issues of race — 12 Years a Slave, Selma and Birth of a Nation immediately spring to mind — have concentrated on momentous individuals and/or points in history; it’s refreshing to experience a much more intimate, carefully sculpted depiction of jes’ plain folks.

Some of whom, it must be noted, are capable of unspeakable behavior.

Rees and co-scripter Virgil Williams adopt Jordan’s alternating narrative voices while introducing us to two families: the McAllans and Jacksons, both struggling on a remote, hard-scrabble cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta. It’s the winter of 1946, with flashbacks filling in crucial pre-war details.

Monsoon-like rains occasionally turn the entire farm into a dispiriting swamp of mud.

We meet Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) and his younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) as they dig a grave for their recently deceased father, trying to complete this task ahead of another impending storm. Subsequently easing the plain wooden coffin into the grave proves too much for the two men; Henry requests help from their tenant farmers, the Jacksons, as their wagon ambles along the nearby road.

This request elicits palpable tension; we’ve no idea why.

Answers emerge via lengthy flashbacks.

The Commuter: Catch the next train

The Commuter (2018) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, for action violence and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang

When Lewis Carroll’s Alice quite reasonably suggests that one can’t believe impossible things, the Queen of Hearts insists that “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

The queen would have been right at home with this movie.

When Joanna (Vera Farmiga) — a total stranger — sits opposite Michael (Liam Neeson)
and proposes a mysterious "what if?" scenario, he assumes that she's merely passing the
time during their commute. Increasingly unlikely events quickly will demonstrate that
she's completely serious...
Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Commuter is a hilariously ludicrous start to the cinematic new year: a thriller that makes absolutely no sense and survives on momentum alone ... until it doesn’t.

The script — assign the blame to Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle — sails right past improbable and far-fetched, and heads straight into preposterous. It demands a suspension of disbelief far beyond the capability of mere mortals.

Theater ushers will have quite a task after each screening, carefully scooping up all the viewer eyeballs that have rolled right out of their sockets.

This storyline probably began with the intriguing notion that regular commuters — despite sharing (in this case) the same New York train, five days a week, 52 weeks a year — really don’t know much about the folks with whom they exchange cheerful greetings twice each day. What secrets might be concealed behind those superficial smiles?

Insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) finds out one day, when his late-afternoon trip home is interrupted by an enigmatic woman (Vera Farmiga, as Joanna) who sits in the opposite chair and strikes up a conversation. She behaves like a friendly, flirty psychologist, posing a “What would you do for $100,000?” scenario.

Michael indulges her (already unlikely, on a New York City train).

Perhaps, being well read, he recognizes this riff on Richard Matheson’s 1970 short story, “Button, Button,” in which a mysterious man gives a poverty-stricken couple a box with a button, promising $200,000 if they push the button, which will kill “someone whom you don’t know.” (It was filmed as an episode of the 1985-86 revival of The Twilight Zone, and then again in 2009, as the feature film The Box.)

Joanna departs at the next station, with an ambiguous comment that suggests her scenario isn’t all that fictitious. Michael, curious, investigates ... and finds a percentage of the cash, hidden right where she promised. At which point, she calls his smart phone, insists that he now has no choice but to comply with her demands ... lest his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and son be harmed.

Michael’s task: to find the person on the train who “doesn’t belong,” is carrying a bag, and answers to the name of “Prin.” Before the train reaches the end of the line.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Molly's Game: All in!

Molly's Game (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity, drug use and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.5.18

Truth isn’t merely stranger than fiction; sometimes it’s flat-out astonishing.

Molly’s Game is the mesmerizing study of Molly Bloom, who — in a parallel universe — might have been the gold medal-winning Olympics skier that she was trained to become, from an early age.

Having become master of her own high-stakes poker domain, Molly (Jessica Chastain)
strides confidently through the room, fully aware of the impact she has on her all-male
Or, maybe, she’d have blossomed into the high-profile lawyer being nurtured by her academic talents.

In our world, derailed by a freak accident and occasionally hampered by a rebellious spirit, she applied her preternatural intelligence to become — of all things — the “Poker Princess” known in upper-echelon circles for running weekly, invitation-only games for some of the wealthiest high-rollers in Los Angeles and New York.

Her rise and fall — and rise and fall, and rise and fall — is detailed with supernova intensity by famed scripter Aaron Sorkin, also making a splashy directorial debut in this adaptation of Bloom’s page-turning 2014 memoir, Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker.

And yes, the film is as breathtaking as that title.

Perhaps too breathtaking.

As Sorkin’s longtime fans are well aware, his rat-a-tat dialog sizzles with the manic incandescence of classic Hollywood screwball comedies, albeit on a far higher level of dramatic gravitas: often laden with information dumps that demand not only one’s full attention, but (couldn’t hurt) a college graduate’s vocabulary.

There’s a reason Sorkin’s best-scripted episodes of TV’s gone but still much-beloved West Wing clocked in at a fast-paced 45 minutes; most viewers probably couldn’t have endured more. The same narrative ferocity can be found in any isolated 15 to 20 minutes of Molly’s Game, particularly as anchored by Jessica Chastain’s hypnotically alluring starring role, and Idris Elba’s equally powerful supporting performance.

Taken as a whole, though, this 140-minute film is exhausting. Even too many chocolate milkshakes can overwhelm the most enthusiastic palate, and — as director — Sorkin has over-indulged his writing sensibilities. (Tellingly, this fate that did not befall his Academy Award-winning script for 2010’s The Social Network, when his efforts were carefully modulated by director David Fincher.)

Molly narrates her own unlikely saga, Chastain giving these events the stream-of-consciousness passion of a seasoned sportscaster. As is his frequent custom, Sorkin eschews a conventional linear approach for a three-pronged attack divided mostly between the “present” — April 2013 through May 2014 — and the whirlwind events that began a decade earlier. Occasional deeper flashbacks illuminate the childhood training sessions under her disciplinarian father, Larry (Kevin Costner), by profession a clinical psychologist and Colorado State University professor.