Friday, July 22, 2016

Captain Fantastic: A thoughtful modern parable

Captain Fantastic (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and occasional chaste nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.22.16

Cannes winners can be obtuse, maddeningly weird and deadly dull; this is, after all, the film festival that bestowed a Palme d’Or upon 2011’s execrable Tree of Life.

Ben (Viggo Mortensen, center) and four of his children — from left, Bo (George MacKay),
Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton, partly obscured), Vespyr (Annalise Basso) and Kielyr
(Samantha Isler) — gather their most recent homemade craft goods, in anticipation of
a routine visit to the nearest trading post.
On the other hand, other entries are quirky, imaginative and unexpectedly endearing, as is the case with Captain Fantastic, which took this year’s Un Certain Regard Directing Prize and was nominated for the overall Un Certain Regard Award.

Matt Ross is best known as a busy television actor with ongoing roles in eccentric shows such as American Horror Story and Silicon Valley; he occasionally moonlights as a filmmaker. His big-screen feature debut — 2012’s 28 Hotel Rooms — didn’t amount to much, but Captain Fantastic is guaranteed to change his career. Ross’ sensitively calculated script is matched by his delicate direction; he’s also blessed with an ensemble cast that rises to this quite unusual occasion.

I never cease to be amazed, having spent so much time studying our century-old film medium, by the continuing emergence of fresh stories told in captivating ways. “Captain Fantastic” is unconventional and challenging, to be sure; but it’s also poignant, shrewdly perceptive and a subtly critical statement of our times. That’s a lot of subtext for an idiosyncratic little indie, but Ross pulls it off.

Mostly because, at its core, this also is a story of the love and loyalty that bonds a family: something everybody can relate to.

Our introduction to Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his six children is unexpected, to say the least: all seven of them mud-smeared, in order to blend into forest foliage while stalking a deer. It’s a bloody rite of passage for eldest son Bo (George MacKay), who brings down the creature with a knife. Ross doesn’t shy from the gore.

Neither do any of Bo’s siblings, down to youngsters Zaja (Shree Crooks) and Nai (Charlie Shotwell), who revel equally in this feral ritual. The carcass is taken home, skinned and dressed by 15-year-old twins Vespyr and Kielyr (Annalise Basso and Samantha Isler). Everybody washes up and tackles assigned chores, later assembling for rigorous calisthenics and a grueling run through the woods.

Later, after night has fallen, they gather around a crackling fire, quietly reading weighty books on science (Jared Diamond) and philosophy (Noam Chomsky), or challenging fiction such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Somehow sensing when his children have had enough, Ben teases a quiet song on his guitar; Bo joins him. Twelve-year-old Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) displays a rebellious streak by inserting an aggressive drum beat; there’s a breathless moment, as his siblings wait to see how their father will handle this intrusion, but Ben smiles and modifies his own playing to follow the beat. The others, relieved, laugh and dance as the family makes music together.

Ice Age: Collision Course — Thawed too soon

Ice Age: Collision Course (2016) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang

In theory, a 94-minute animated feature paced with the manic intensity of a 7-minute Warner Bros. cartoon must’ve seemed like a great idea.

In practice ... not so much.

The gang's all here: clockwise from left, Julian, Peaches, Ellie, Manny, Shira, Diego,
Granny, Sid, Crash and Eddie. As for what they're all staring at ... well, that would be
giving away too much!
This fifth (!) entry in the popular Ice Age series is relentless: a never-ending succession of hyper-paced slapstick, sight gags and one-liners, all of which overwhelm the gentle family-unity message that struggles to be heard amid the chaos. Watching this film rapidly becomes an endurance test, after which one is utterly overwhelmed and exhausted.

Additionally, the four credited writers — Aubrey Solomon, Michael J. Wilson, Michael Berg and Yoni Brenner — have augmented the already enormous ensemble cast with a wealth of new characters. The result is total overload, to the detriment of several regular players, most notably Diego, the sabertooth voiced by Denis Leary. He contributes absolutely nothing to the narrative, and his recently acquired gal pal Shira (Jennifer Lopez) fares even worse.

It’s all too much. As the third act introduced yet another set of blissed-out newcomers, shepherded by the fortune cookie-tongued Shangri Llama (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), Constant Companion and I glanced at each other and mouthed, Seriously?

If all concerned — co-directors Galen T. Chu and Mike Thurmeier, and the aforementioned writers — are looking to kill this once-charming franchise, I can think of no better way. The tenderness and wit have been lost.

Everybody involved with 2002’s original Ice Age understood the importance of balance. The bulk of the story was fairly serious — disparate prehistoric creatures banding together for the common good — with the occasional silly one-liners limited to the slovenly Sid, the sloth (John Leguizamo). Machine-gun slapstick was the sole province of the frantic, twitchy Scrat, whose rodent quest for precious acorns served as brief madcap “bumpers” between the core story’s various acts.

This fifth entry is nothing but madcap bumpers. It’s soulless.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Infiltrator: One of the greatest roles ever played

The Infiltrator (2016) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for strong violence, profanity, sexual candor and drug content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.15.16

Truth isn’t merely stranger than fiction; it’s also a lot scarier.

When the undercover Bob Mazur (Bryan Cranston, right) finally gains an audience with
Colombian drug cartel overlords, he's surprised to discover that he first must pass some
sort of dangerous "initiation" overseen by Rudy Ambrecht (Carsten Hayes, left).
U.S. Customs operative Robert “Bob” Mazur spent years as a deep undercover agent in the 1980s, climactically building an identity as a high-level money launderer for senior members of several Colombian drug cartels. The operation ultimately led to one of the largest busts in U.S. history: 100 drug traffickers and money launderers arrested, along with the seizure of 3,200 pounds of cocaine and roughly $100 million in cash and assets.

Perhaps more dramatically, it brought about the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, at the time the world’s seventh largest privately held financial institution, with assets of $20 billion. It also was one of the world’s largest money-laundering banks.

Remember BCCI? Anybody involved with the banking industry recalls full well how transaction reporting regulations changed, almost overnight, in the wake of this scandal.

Mazur detailed his experiences in a riveting 2009 memoir, The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel. That book, in turn, has been transformed into an equally compelling film by director Brad Furman. Screenwriter Ellen Sue Brown’s adaptation is by turns fascinating, suspenseful, terrifying and even mordantly amusing.

The film gets additional dramatic heft from star Bryan Cranston’s impressively nuanced portrayal of Mazur: a performance of delicate subtlety that becomes more persuasive as the narrative moves from one jaw-dropping incident to the next.

And while it’s true that Cranston commands the screen, he has equally superb support from all of the impeccably selected co-stars. This is another film that lends weight to the call for giving casting directors their own Academy Award category, because Gail Stevens found just the right individual for every part.

Perhaps more than anything else, this is a very nervous film. Despite knowing full well that Mazur will survive these events, the suspense is no less intense; plenty of sidebar individuals are vulnerable at every turn, and we’ve ample evidence throughout, of the cold-blooded ferocity of cartel shot-callers.

Ghostbusters: Don't bother to call

Ghostbusters (2016) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for supernatural action and crude humor

By Derrick Bang 

It can be argued, with reasonable justification, that a film shouldn’t be remade unless one intends to deliver a new version that is superior to, or at least as good as, its predecessor.

The franchise busters behind this 21st century Ghostbusters failed in their mission.

With all of New York City under assault by legions of cranky phantasms, the Ghostbusters —
from left, Abby (Melissa McCarthy), Jillian (Kate McKinnon), Erin (Kristen Wiig) and Patty
(Leslie Jones) — suit up and ready their proton packs.
In every way that matters.

In theory, the gender switch is a delightful idea ... but only had it been accompanied by better material. It feels as if helmer Paul Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold believed that we’d be so charmed by the notion of women in those iconic uniforms, that we’d forgive the lackluster directing and clumsy, inadequate script. They didn’t even try.

The primary distinction involves tone. The 1984 original’s far-fetched premise notwithstanding, the guys took their work seriously; Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson gave solemn, even stern, line readings. That contrast — their earnestness, in the face of crazed circumstances — made the film hilarious. The humor was arch, not infantile.

The Aykroyd/Ramis script also was constructed with some care, and with adults in mind. In a film laden with great one-liners, none was funnier than Murray’s response to the possessed Sigourney Weaver, when she tried to seduce him by moaning, “I want you inside me.”

“No,” he replied, after a beat. “It sounds like you’ve got at least two or three people in there already.”

Nothing in this new film comes close to that level of sly humor; Feig’s preferred approach is the lazy, vulgar slapstick we see all too frequently these days. His cast most often behaves like the participants in a Saturday Night Live sketch, delivering isolated bits of (not very funny) business, with no thought to narrative continuity.

The 1984 film catered to all ages. This one’s for snickering, arrested adolescents. Which shouldn’t surprise us, given that Feig is the guy who, with Melissa McCarthy, inflicted us with The Heat and Spy.

And, as is the case with the recently released Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, too much of the dialogue here feels forced and ad-libbed; that’s particularly true of McCarthy, who frequently flails about as if she has forgotten her lines, and can’t come up with a reasonable substitute. She (and Feig?) apparently believe this to be “characterization.”

It feels like desperation.

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Secret Life of Pets: Too much bite, not enough bark

The Secret Life of Pets (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for no particularly reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.8.16

There’s such a thing as trying too hard.

This film’s concept, as suggested by the hilarious preview we’ve been watching for the past several months, is irresistible. Everybody who owns a dog, cat, hamster — or whatever — wonders what our beloved critters get up to, while we’re away from home. Do they chew our shoes? Invade the pantry? Climb the drapes? Kick back and watch Animal Planet on the flat-screen TV?

Gidget, far right, expects great things from the "local expert" who knows the ins and outs of
Manhattan, and will help them find the missing Max and Duke. On the other hand, Gidget's
companions — from left, Chloe, Sweetpea, Norman, Mel, Tiberius and Buddy — have
their doubts.
If scripters Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch and Cinco Paul had delivered on that theme, The Secret Life of Pets would have been more emotionally satisfying. Alas, the aforementioned trailer — and film title — are a bit misleading. This story isn’t all that concerned with the secret lives of pets; it’s actually a scuffle between Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), a quick-witted terrier who has long been the sole companion of his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper); and newcomer Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a massive, fluffy, unruly mongrel she rescues one day from the local animal shelter.

Long accustomed to being the alpha dog, both at home and in his multi-story Manhattan apartment building, Max doesn’t take kindly to this intruder ... particularly when Duke shows little interest in sharing their territory. This struggle for dominance spills out onto New York’s mean streets, and soon involves a deranged bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart), who heads a massive, motley pack of abandoned animals calling themselves the Flushed Pets.

Snowball and his gang hate people, and they also hate pampered pets; the increasingly chaotic result turns into a slapstick collection of sight gags, some of which jump the shark (well, crocodile) to a disastrous degree. An interlude in a sausage factory defies description, particularly when it morphs into a musical sequence set to “We Go Together,” from Grease.

Along the way, the film loses what little heart it struggles to display, while also burying the all-important message: that people shouldn’t adopt pets, if they’ve no intention of keeping them. Instead, it’s a race to a manic finish line, with co-directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney apparently engaged in several rounds of Can You Top This?

Which is a shame. The lengthy prologue introduces us to a delightful set of pampered pets, each of whom could have been explored further. Too often, though, they become sidebar distractions to the outrageous antics of Snowball & Co.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates: This film needs an intervention

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for nudity, crude sexual content, drug use and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.8.16

Strip the profanity away, and the rest of this script could be printed on a postage stamp.

Indeed, it’s rather audacious of Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien to claim credit for writing this flimsy excuse for a screenplay; most of what landed on the screen seems to be improvised. On the spot. While everybody in question was under the influence of intelligence-altering substances.

After realizing that their "respectable" dates are anything but, Dave (Zac Efron, far right)
and Mike (Adam Devine) agree to a truce with Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza, far left) and Alice
(Anna Kendrick). Whether this quartet can repair two days' worth of damage, however, is
an entirely different matter...
The oh-so-hilarious (not!) “outtakes” included, during the end credits, certainly suggest as much.

Sadly — for those of us forced to endure the results — these folks are far, far removed from the likes of lightning-quick improv talents. Sputtering and flailing through a relentless stream of F-bombs and vulgar euphemisms is hardly the height of comedy; it simply smacks of clueless desperation. It’s actually rather painful, particularly when we know full well that these actors are capable of much better.

In fairness, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is occasionally funny, in spite of itself. And it’s rescued from total turkeydom by the effervescent work of Anna Kendrick, who repeatedly rises above the thin material. She puts some actual ability and effort into her performance, in stark contrast to all the others, who mostly swan about and pose for the camera, like 10-year-old show-offs.

Honestly, it’s surprising they don’t all scream “Look at me! Look at me!”

The story, such as it is:

Hard-partying brothers Mike and Dave Stangle (Adam Devine and Zac Efron) have ruined too many previous family gatherings, mostly because they always come stag, get drunk and try to pick up available women. Thus, when younger sister Jeanie (Sugar Lyn Beard) announces her impending dream wedding in Hawaii, their parents (Stephen Root and Stephanie Faracy) lay down fresh ground rules: Mike and Dave can attend only if they bring dates. Respectable dates.

The theory being, well-behaved companions will keep the boys in line.

Not having the faintest idea how to find such women, Mike and Dave resort to the go-to 21st solution: They advertise on Craigslist. (This much actually happened, in real life, in February 2013; check YouTube to see the actual Stangle brothers being interviewed.)

Friday, July 1, 2016

The BFG: A colossal triumph

The BFG (2016) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated PG, for fantasy peril and some scary scenes

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.1.16

Roald Dahl’s children’s books are cherished for all sorts of reasons, including his ability to concoct astounding creatures and astonishing realms that require a reader’s imagination, because such wonders couldn’t possibly be replicated on the big screen.

After gaining the trust of her immense new friend (Mark Rylance), Sophie (Ruby Barnhill)
learns of his skill at catching and bottling "dream stuff," which then can be used to help
London's denizens sleep more peacefully.
At least, not until quite recently.

Dahl has done quite well by Hollywood over the years, with fabulous adaptations of The Witches, James and the Giant Peach and Fantastic Mr. Fox, not to mention a couple of quite popular renditions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The many talented individuals behind those films notwithstanding, nothing approaches the pure magic — the jaw-dropping sense of wonder — delivered by director Steven Spielberg and an amazing team of collaborators, in The BFG.

Back in the day, the producers of Christopher Reeve’s first Superman film promised that we’d believe a man can fly. Well, Spielberg and his crew make us believe that giants stride the earth. The verisimilitude is so natural, so persuasive, that we often disregard the boring technicalities of special effects, choosing instead to accept the fantastic at face value: no small thing, in these jaded times.

Everything is orchestrated to perfection: the late Melissa Mathison’s poignant, deftly sculpted screenplay (her final completed assignment); Janusz Kaminski’s lavish cinematography, rich with warm color tones that enhance the film’s cozy atmosphere; the ingenious production design and set decoration by Rick Carter and Elizabeth Wilcox; and — most particularly — John Williams’ delicately intricate score.

Williams, recently the first composer to be honored with the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, is no stranger to ornately layered soundtracks and iconic character themes. But even in a lengthy career distinguished by scores of memorable scores, this one is one of his finest.

Williams’ music for The BFG is all-encompassing; it feels as if every scene, every character, has its own theme. His score plays like a continuous, massive symphony that brings Spielberg’s handling of this gentle parable to even greater emotional heights.

Dahl published his book in 1982, and Spielberg’s film is set in the same decade. It opens with a slow pan of late-night London, Kaminski employing some sort of cinematographic trick that makes the streets, vehicles and buildings seem somehow smaller than usual: almost like an immense, three-quarter-size fairy tale village. We glide into an orphanage, where the matron’s final rounds are watched, surreptitiously, by 10-year-old Sophie (Ruby Barnhill).