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.

Victoria and Abdul: A revealing friendship

Victoria and Abdul (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for dramatic elements and mild profanity

By Derrick Bang

History is laden with fascinating incidents and anecdotes, and — here’s the amazing thing — more pop up all the time.

Having been granted the privilege of serving "the jelly" — at the request of Queen Victoria
(Judi Dency) — Abdul (Ali Fazal, center) does his best to maneuver the wobbly dessert,
while Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith) watches nervously.
You’d think, given the tireless methodology of modern research, that we’d have uncovered pretty much everything by now. Chances are, not even close.

Case in point: The unlikely, all but unknown — and (deliberately) mostly concealed — camaraderie that bonded Britain’s Queen Victoria and a former Muslim Indian clerk named Abdul Karim. The saga came to light in 2010, with the publication of research journalist Shrabani Basu’s Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant; the details were assembled from the hitherto undiscovered journals of both Abdul and Victoria, the latter written in Hindustani Urdu (!).

The narrative immediately demanded even wider exposure, and this thoughtful big-screen translation comes courtesy of director Stephen Frears: an apt choice, given the similar sensitivity he brought to the depiction of Elizabeth II, in 2006’s The Queen. Scripter Lee Hall has adapted Basu’s book with grace and the sly wit at which the British excel, particularly when they’re poking gentle fun at themselves.

The thoroughly captivating result is anchored by the venerable Judi Dench, taking a second crack at the role she first played in 1997’s Mrs. Brown (which, rather intriguingly, details a similarly “imprudent” incident in Queen Victoria’s life). But while Dench dominates this new film — how could she not? — Ali Fazal also deserves credit for the elegance with which he has brought an equally compelling character to life.

This is late during Queen Victoria’s reign, when she has become — in her own words — fat, lame, cantankerous and impotent (along with several other marvelous pejoratives that I couldn’t jot down quickly enough). The regal routine, and life itself, have become tedious things to be endured, rarely enjoyed. She suffers fools not at all, let alone gladly; each day begins with chiding admonitions about diet and “movement” from the royal physician, Dr. Reid (Paul Higgins).

Dench always has excelled at withering glances, and they get plenty of exercise here. Victoria is well aware of the obsequious jockeying that takes place behind closed doors, as her many children — led by heir apparent Bertie (Eddie Izzard) — and court hangers-on curry favor and snipe at each other. No conversation comes close to actual candor; she can’t trust anybody to be sincere, and she’s well aware that everybody is waiting for her to die.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Stronger: A quiet triumph

Stronger (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for frequent profanity, graphic injury images, and fleeting sexuality and nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.22.17

Some things transcend their real-world existence.

Football is a crowd-pleasing spectator sport; baseball is ... something more. Baseball inspires myth-making films such as The Natural and Field of Dreams. You simply can’t imagine football doing the same.

Jeff (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes a few tentative steps on his new prosthetic legs, much to the
overly eager delight of his helicoptering mother (Miranda Richardson, center), and the
cautious concern of his girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany).
Los Angeles and Chicago are cities. New York and Boston are ... dreamlike.

Boston’s intangible, ferociously indomitable spirit (“Boston strong!”) has much to do with the triumphant, fist-pumping exhilaration that powers Stronger, but director David Gordon Green’s fact-based drama likely will be remembered best for its quieter, intimate moments. Two will linger in my mind for a long time: one for its near-silent emotional intensity; the other for the heartbreaking wallop of an unexpectedly personal story, related by a late-entry supporting character.

Both are staged, lensed and performed impeccably; both are moments of pure cinema magic. And if the rest of Green’s film doesn’t live up to those high points, it nonetheless remains inspirational and thoroughly satisfying.

Stronger, based on Jeff Bauman’s best-selling 2014 memoir of the same title, depicts his agonizing emotional and physical struggle after losing both legs during the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. His saga captivates for all sorts of reasons; his being a survivor at times seems incidental.

Jeff’s presence at the finish line was sheer caprice; he “showed up” in an effort to win back the on-again/off-again girlfriend (Erin Hurley) who was running the race. In the blast aftermath, he likely would have died, were it not for the rapid intervention of Carlos Arredondo, a Costa Rican-born American peace activist who attended the marathon for his own deeply personal reasons.

Immediately upon regaining consciousness after surgery, still intubated and unable to speak, Jeff indicated — by writing — that he’d seen one of the bombers; his description of Tamerlan Tsarnaev helped police and FBI narrow down the suspect list.

All of which gives this film a hefty emotional center, although scripter John Pollono wisely focuses on the all-important relationship between Jeff and Erin. Everything else flows from that bond.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle — More cheerfully deranged spyjinks

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for strong violence, frequent profanity, drug content and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

This is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures.

Director Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle is just as hyperkinetically loopy as its 2014 predecessor, and I mean that in the best possible way. Both films are deranged riffs on the 1960s spy craze: from the colorfully mod sets to the manic gadgets and weapons. Think Our Man Flint or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ... on steroids.

Waitaminute ... isn't he dead? Having tracked the nefarious Golden Circle's drug-dealing
enterprise to a huge lab concealed beneath a mountain ski chalet, Eggsy (Taron Egerton,
left), Galahad (Colin Firth, center) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) plan their assault.
The Kingsman films are over the top in all respects, which includes frequent profanity and outrageous dollops of violence, the latter guaranteed to whiten the faces of sensitive viewers. (Consider this ample warning.)

But none of this should be taken seriously. These are comic book-style comedies, even if Vaughn and co-scripter Jane Goldman repeatedly crash the boundaries of good taste. Actually, this sequel is more palatable in one key respect: It lacks the first film’s vulgar sexuality, which is a blessed relief.

On the other hand, this second outing does suffer from bloat. At 141 minutes, Vaughn and Goldman overstay their welcome by at least one frenzied action sequence. Too much of anything becomes tedious.

Following a brilliantly choreographed, pedal-to-the-metal prologue that nearly claims the life of Savile Row-garbed Kingsman agent Eggsy (Taron Egerton), Vaughn and Goldman kick this second global adventure into even higher gear, with an unexpectedly vicious housecleaning: a purge reminiscent of how 1996’s first big-screen Mission: Impossible began. When the dust settles, only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong), the organization’s fastidious Scottish tech guru, are left standing.

Forced to activate their organization’s emergency “Doomsday Protocol,” Eggsy and Merlin are guided to the plains of Kentucky, and the massive Statesman bourbon distillery: actually a front for an even more massive compatriot spy organization that clandestinely protects the civilized world. In its own, inimitably American fashion.

2014’s Kingsman milked considerable humor from the class divide that initially separated Eggsy — introduced as a wayward, uncouth, working-class bloke — from Harry Hart/Galahad (Colin Firth), the seasoned operative who brought the young man into the fold. This film does the same, with even funnier results, as the now-suave Eggsy and (always suave) Merlin confront their rougher, gruffer American counterparts.

Kentucky is cowboy country, and everything about Statesman adheres to that model, starting with boots, pronounced drawls and plenty of denim. The primary Statesman field agents are Tequila (Channing Tatum) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal); their tech guru — Merlin’s counterpart — is Ginger Ale (Halle Berry).

As for the group’s leader, who else but Jeff Bridges would be cast as Champagne? He has a great time sending up his various cowboy roles, down to little gestures such as Champ’s habit of wiping his mustache with a finger moistened in bourbon.

Brad's Status: On life-support

Brad's Status (2017) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang

Inevitability is the death of drama.

Ten minutes into Brad’s Status, it’s blindingly obvious where writer/director Mike White will take his story, and precisely how he’ll get there.

Brad (Ben Stiller, right) and his son, Troy (Austin Abrams), time their visit to Harvard so
they can catch a classical music concert by one of the latter's former high school friends.
And that journey is pretty damn dull.

Mind you, the premise would have been a tough sell, even under more optimal circumstances. A middle-class, mid-life crisis feels unpalatably narcissistic these days, and casting Ben Stiller in such a project is way too on the nose. Much of his career has involved playing self-absorbed mopes, and this story’s Brad Sloan finds Stiller treading his own well-worn ground.

A 101-minute self-pity party isn’t my idea of a good time. Particularly when White’s plot bumps are so predictable.

Brad and his wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) lead comfortable lives in suburban Sacramento; he runs a nonprofit that matches worthy causes with like-minded angel investors, while she pulls in “real money” with a government job. Their 17-year-old only child Troy (Austin Abrams) is college-bound, prompting a father/son trip across the country, to check out the universities likely to extend offers on the basis of the lad’s strong transcript and solid extracurriculars.

It’s a milestone event for Brad, which triggers all sorts of memories, long-buried desires and Big Questions. Am I successful? Have I done everything in life, that my impassioned, idealistic college-age self intended?

Trouble is, White saddles Brad with some rather insensitive dialogue right off the bat, during the sleepless night before the trip, in the form of a financially themed chat with the patiently exhausted Melanie. Right away, we don’t like Brad. He sounds and behaves like a whiny jerk, and Stiller never does much to change that snap judgment.

Which is a problem, because we’re definitely supposed to identify — even sympathize — with this guy. That’s an uphill struggle, likely impossible for some.

Matters aren’t helped when Brad constantly shares his innermost thoughts, via a constant sulky voice-over. I’ve long found unrelenting off-camera narration a potential red flag in cinematic storytelling; very few writers and directors know how to use it properly. White isn’t one of them; the technique merely slows his already dull fill to a lifeless crawl.

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.


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.