Friday, July 18, 2014

Third Person: Provocative points of view

Third Person (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, nudity and sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.11.14

Writer/director Paul Haggis’ film is too long, too self-indulgent and often too precious.

That said, it’s also intriguing, mysterious, and oddly compelling. And, to a degree, there’s a reason for the many contrivances. Whether the “ultimate answer” justifies the prolonged journey, however, will be up to the taste — and tolerance — of the individual viewer.

Monika (Moran Atias) angrily refuses to share a hotel room with Scott (Adrien Body), and
accusing him of "the obvious" motivations; she chooses instead to make the best of a
bench at the railway station. Of course, this just amplifies Scott's protective instincts, so
he follows and winds up keeping her company for the entire night.
Haggis is a seasoned writer, having cut his teeth on various TV dramas before leaping to the big screen with several high-profile assignments with Clint Eastwood: Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima and most particularly Million Dollar Baby, the latter two garnering Oscar nominations. Haggis also helped revive the James Bond franchise by collaborating on the gritty scripts for Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.

Most notably, though, Haggis is known for taking home twin Academy Awards for 2004’s Crash, a victory that remains controversial to this day. Some Best Picture Oscar winners are universally embraced; others divide movie buffs into polarized camps. Crash belongs to the latter group, its interlinked storylines alternately praised as insightful social commentary or ridiculed as puerile left-wing twaddle.

Third Person is an equally personal film that employs a similar template of seemingly disconnected narratives that slide in and around each other. The crossovers aren’t as direct as those in, say, Babel, Love Actually or even Crash; sometimes it’s no more than two people passing each other in a hotel hallway, Haggis’ camera using that excuse to shift quietly from one point of view to the other.

Except that there is more going on here, as we eventually discover.

Perhaps sensitive to the warring camps he created with Crash, Haggis avoids even a whiff of political content this time, focusing instead on interpersonal relationships and issues of trust. All the characters here are in various stages of flirtation, love or rejection, their behavior determined by anger, frustration and impatience.

And by hope. Hope for understanding; hope that things will get better; hope that past transgressions can be surmounted, catalogued and forgiven.

Julia (Mila Kunis) can’t get her life together, much to the vexation of her attorney, Theresa (Maria Bello). Forever between jobs and frequently down to pocket change, Julia nonetheless hopes to regain visitation rights with the 6-year-old son living full-time with his father Rick (James Franco), a famed New York artist, and his girlfriend Sam (Loan Chabanol). We’ve no idea what Julia did, to be shunned so thoroughly by her ex; her flakiness alone doesn’t seem sufficient cause for such total banishment.

Sex Tape: A limp noodle

Sex Tape (2014) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for nudity, strong sexual content, drug use and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang

Homemade porn (so I’ve been told) tends to reflect the amateur skills of its makers: jittery camerawork, clumsy editing, terrible performances and — needless to say — no plot.

Ironic, then, that a so-called Hollywood comedy about this phenomenon should mimic all these shortcomings.

Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Jason Segel) discover that, contrary to her original request,
their rather enthusiastic sex tape remained on his master computer, from where it then
migrated to several other tablets in the possession of various friends and family members.
Worse yet, one of those individuals is threatening to post the film to the Internet...
Sex Tape arises from a premise with plenty of potential, to give scripters Kate Angelo, Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller at least that much credit. Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Segel), during their younger years relentless pursuers of recreational sex, have found that their mutual passion has chilled after 10 years of marriage and two children.

Hoping to re-ignite the flame — and with common sense dulled by too many tequila shots — they park the kids with grandma and film themselves performing every single maneuver in Alex Comfort’s groundbreaking 1972 manual, The Joy of Sex.

In a single three-hour session.

That seems ambitious, given that Comfort’s book is large and rather inventive. But we’ll let that slide.

Mission accomplished, Annie instructs Jay to erase the film (unseen? really?), but of course the amiable lunk forgets. Cue the rumble of ominous drums.

In a rather blatant example of cinematic product placement, Jay — who works in the music biz — traditionally gifts friends with old iPads, when he upgrades to newer models. But the tablets are only part of this generous act; they’re also equipped with copies of the impressive music library he has built over the years.

You know what’s coming: Thanks to Jay’s ill-advised use of an aggressive cloning app, their sex film winds up on every recently donated iPad. The recipients include Annie’s mother, the mailman, best friends Robby and Tess (Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper), and — most damningly — Hank Rosenbaum (Rob Lowe), CEO of the wholesome multinational toy company Piper Brothers, which has made a lucrative financial offer to sponsor Annie’s “modern mommy” blog.

Assuming she maintains appropriate family values, of course.

(I can’t help wondering if the scripters deliberately riffed on the controversy that erupted back in the early 1970s, when Ivory Snow model Marilyn Chambers — who posed with a baby beneath the tag line “99 & 44/100% pure” — became a porn star with the release of Behind the Green Door. Needless to say, Procter & Gamble dropped her like a hot coal.)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: A parable for our era

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for intense sci-fi violence and action, and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.11.14

Given the long list of entries on the Hollywood odds-makers’ tote boards, the chances of a second cycle of Apes movies must’ve been the darkest of horses.

Malcolm (Jason Clarke, foreground) tries to forge an uneasy alliance with, from left, Caesar
(motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis), Koba (Toby Kebbell) and Maurice (Karin
Konoval), none of whom have much reason to trust humans.
And yet here we are, four decades later, three films into another incarnation of Pierre Boulle’s seminal sci-fi novel, re-shaped for a new global order.

If the original five films — from 1968’s Planet of the Apes to 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes — felt like a thinly disguised commentary on the American civil rights struggle, this new series clearly speaks to the sadly intransient warfare between Israel and Palestine, or Shiite and Sunni, or any of half a dozen other sectarian-driven hot spots throughout the world.

And, as often is true of parables, there’s little comfort to be derived from this fantasy-laden depiction of such conflict. Some battles seem doomed to continue for eternity, despite the best efforts of noble heroes on both sides.

Tim Burton probably didn’t have such high-falutin’ notions in mind, when he remade the original Planet of the Apes in 2001. No doubt that’s why 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes adopted a fresh approach, with director Rypert Wyatt and scripters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver telling a thoughtful story about the desperate — and foolish — measures that can be prompted by grief. (One hopes the impetuous scientist given a template in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein remains mostly a figure of cautionary fable, lest we foolish mortals get ourselves into even more serious trouble.)

Jaffa and Silver have returned for this sequel (threequel?), with a scripting assist from Mark Bomback, while Matt Reeves takes over the director’s chair. The result isn’t quite as relentlessly heartbreaking as was the case with Rise, nor does this new film play the human-beings-are-cruel-thugs card quite as often (for which I’m grateful).

That said, matters have moved in the grim direction foretold by the previous film’s cliffhanger conclusion, with a highly contagious (and woefully misnamed) “simian flu” wiping out all but a few scattered remnants of humanity. The ape colony founded in Northern California’s Muir Woods by Caesar, the previous film’s chimpanzee hero, has thrived; the hyper-intelligent chimps, gorillas and orangutans have built a vibrant community devoted to the democratic notion that all apes are to be cherished as equals.

And they’ve wondered, as numerous winters have passed, if human beings have wiped themselves out completely.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Begin Again: A melody-laden charmer

Begin Again (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.4.14

It’s a bit rough around the edges at first, the approach uncertain, the artist perhaps nervous and worried about looking foolish.

A needless concern.

With Dan (Mark Ruffalo, far right) acting as an on-the-fly director, Greta (Keira Knightley)
performs one of her songs in a New York City alley, accompanied by several talented
instrumentalists, and watched by a gaggle of neighborhood children.
I could be discussing the first song we see performed by Greta (Keira Knightley), reluctantly and a bit shyly, in front of an indifferent bar crowd. But I’m actually talking about this film itself: Perhaps writer/director John Carney is that clever, to have mirrored Greta’s stumbling debut before the public eye, with our reaction to the manner in which her story unfolds.

Because, in both cases, the talent involved can’t help but win us over.

Begin Again is the newest offering from the Irish filmmaker who charmed us so thoroughly with the saga of a Dublin busker in 2006’s Once, a film cherished just as much for its music — and that marvelous, Academy Award-winning song, “Falling Slowly” —  as for the gently romantic manner in which its story unfolded.

Carney’s new film once again revolves around music, but the setting and tone are both different and somewhat grittier. This narrative has a villain, but it’s an entity rather than an individual: the music industry, depicted as the instrument by which pure expression is quashed, either benignly or overtly. Remaining true to one’s dreams, passions and (reasonable) expectations is the ideal here: a goal too easily corrupted, as we shall see, by outside forces conscious only of the bottom line.

Those who adore New York for its cornucopia of emotions and experiences will delight in Carney’s rapturous depiction: a Big Apple we’ve not seen idolized so passionately since Woody Allen’s Manhattan, back in 1979. This is a New York of joyous romance, much like the Paris of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie: the city as we imagine it, based on cinematic valentines like this one.

The story opens in the aforementioned East Village bar, as the unwilling Greta is dragged to the stage for one song: a brief musical interlude noticed by nobody except Dan (Mark Ruffalo), whose presence — in that bar, at that moment — is explained during the first of Carney’s clever flashbacks. Dan, once a lauded record label exec, has fallen on hard times prompted by a crisis in his personal life; the result is growing friction with his longtime partner, Saul (Mos Def), which climaxes in yet another humiliation.

Dan also drinks too much, and has been doing so for too long. But his radar remains unimpaired: He’s drawn, moth to flame, by this hesitant performance by a British singer/songwriter who’d rather be anywhere else.

Tammy: Rude, crude and booed

Tammy (2014) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

Melissa McCarthy’s vulgar fat slob shtick is wearing very thin.

Believing that she needs some quick cash in order to help with her grandmother's impending
medical bills, Tammy (Melissa McCarthy, right) dons a minimal "disguise" and holds up a
fast-food joint ... with a "weapon" that's no more than her pointing fingers in a papr bag.
Yep, that's the level of humor in this bomb.
Tammy isn’t even a rough approximation of a film; it’s merely a series of disconnected scenes and encounters, clumsily stitched together in a limp effort at storytelling. McCarthy charges through the resulting mess like a bull in a china shop, as if daring us not to find her so-called antics funny.

I’ll take that dare, Melissa. You’re not funny.

Neither is your film.

Well, wait ... in fairness, I did laugh once, at a quick shot involving a raccoon and a doughnut. McCarthy had nothing to do with it.

I find it completely bewildering that an actress of McCarthy’s talent and timing, having established her comic chops with TV’s Mike & Molly (winning an Emmy) and the big screen’s Bridesmaids (Oscar nomination), would debase herself with material this puerile, sloppy and slapdash. I’m inclined to believe that even the Three Stooges would have rejected this script as beneath them.

Hollywood actresses have long struggled to achieve a level of equality, credibility and respect akin to their male co-stars ... and this is the path to success? Is demonstrating an ability to out-gross Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow and Farrelly brothers comedies really a sign of progress?

If so, that’s pretty sad.

McCarthy has nobody to blame but herself, since she shares scripting credit — if such a term even applies — with off-camera husband Ben Falcone, who also makes his directorial debut with this train wreck.

Note to Ben: Don’t lose your day job.

Falcone makes every rookie mistake in the book, starting with his tendency to frame his wife in tight close-ups, so that we can count every sweaty pore. And he clearly didn’t “direct” McCarthy in any sense of the word; he simply points the camera and waits while she stumbles and bumbles through whatever she concocts from thin air. Which ain’t much.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Obvious Child: Needs to grow a bit

Obvious Child (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon collaborated on a 16mm short film initially called Planetfall while students at USC’s film school in the early 1970s; it was expanded for theatrical release in 1974, now titled Dark Star, and quickly became a cult classic. Carpenter went on to a lucrative career highlighted by Halloween and Escape from New York; O’Bannon made his bones as a screenwriter, notably with Alien and many other horror and sci-fi projects.

On the sad day that Donna (Jenny Slate) packs up books — her final act as clerk of a
bookstore forced to close — she gets a surprise visit from Max (Jake Lacy), who
manages to bring a smile to her face. Whether she'll agree to his gentle push for an
actual date, however, is another matter.
A few years earlier, in 1967, George Lucas made a 15-minute short titled THX 1138 4EB, also while a student at USC’s film school. It, too, was expanded to feature length with a slightly shorter title — THX 1138 — and was released commercially in 1971, now starring Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasence, and became both a cult classic and Lucas’ first directorial credit. He went on to make American Graffiti and, well, a certain sci-fi epic that took place in a galaxy far, far away.

Obvious Child began life in 2009, as a 23-minute short film written by Anna Bean, Karen Maine and Gillian Robespierre, and directed by Robespierre. Encouraging reviews at various film festivals encouraged Robespierre and star Jenny Slate to re-make the film for feature release, with an expanded cast and running time. A Kickstarter campaign raised the funds to get it placed at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where indie distributor A24 picked it up and now has brought it to a theater near you.

Its occasional merits aside, however, I rather doubt Robespierre will go on to the sort of career enjoyed by Carpenter, O’Bannon and Lucas.

Slate, however, should get a pretty good bump. She’s been all over TV for the past five years, from Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, to House of Lies and Parks and Recreation. She capably handles a big-screen starring role here, establishing a warm and delectably snarky persona.

Moving forward, though, she needs better material.

The major problem is that Obvious Child still feels like a 23-minute film, albeit one that has been padded with a lot of extraneous “stuff” in order to beef it up into an 84-minute feature. Several sequences do little but fill time, to the detriment of the story being told, and at least one sidebar is completely pointless.

And since Robespierre now has taken the primary scripting credit for this longer version, she’s clearly the one to blame. Perhaps she shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss Maine and Bean (although Maine and newcomer Elisabeth Holm do share a “story by” credit here).

Friday, June 20, 2014

Jersey Boys: Ain't that a shame

Jersey Boys (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.20.14

The good news:

Considering this play’s origins as a minimalist jukebox musical, director Clint Eastwood and scripters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice have “opened it up” impressively for the big screen.

At the last possible second, the members of The Four Seasons — from left, Tommy
(Vincent Piazza), Bob (Erich Bergen), Frankie (John Lloyd Young) and Nick (Michael
Lomenda) — attempt to inspire their record producer by singing a new song, over the
phone, prior to a studio session that could make or break their careers.
It can’t hurt, of course, that Brickman and Elice were intimately acquainted with the material, having written the musical book for the 2005 Broadway hit that went home with four Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The story charts the unlikely rise, success and lamentable self-destruction of the 1960s pop/rock group, The Four Seasons, perhaps better known these days as the combo fronted by Frankie Valli. Eastwood’s approach may be viewed with surprise by fans of the stage production; this cinematic adaptation of Jersey Boys is less a musical per se, and more a drama about musicians.

With the exception of a few numbers performed mostly intact for climactic emphasis, we’re granted little more than a flavor of the combo’s many hits: just enough to remind older viewers how many chart-toppers the group produced, while perhaps impressing younger viewers who don’t realize how far back some of these tunes actually go.

Additionally, Brickman and Elice have re-structured the narrative, essentially abandoning the more obvious elements of the “seasonal” presentation — spring, summer, fall and finally winter, each segment narrated by a different member of the combo — that mirrored the group’s genesis and eventual break-up. Little of that gimmick remains, aside from a stray reference to Vivaldi.

By the same token, although these individuals still break the fourth wall to tell this story by addressing us directly, their narrative input is intermixed here, rather than divided by person, according to season.

And, quite intriguingly, Valli — who wrapped up the story during the stage play’s winter segment — gets no narration here. We therefore never get a sense of his inner thoughts or motivations, as is the case with his three comrades; to a degree, then, our impression of Valli is shaped mostly by how others see him.

That’s an intriguing artistic choice, and it places a heavier burden on John Lloyd Young, who carries the bulk of the story’s emotional weight as Valli: a kid who comes into this world as Frankie Castelluccio, and seems destined to become just another mob-affiliated New Jersey punk.