Friday, February 27, 2015

Focus: A sharply conceived caper

Focus (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, sensuality and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.27.15

Heist flicks rely on two essential ingredients: a tight, logical script that holds together even as the narrative veers in unexpectedly twisty directions; and — just as important — a sharply constructed cast of characters, played by actors who approach this material with sincerity and conviction.

Having pulled off yet another successful con, Nicky (Will Smith) and Jess (Margot Robbie)
realize that they make a pretty good team. But their increasing fondness for each other, on
a personal level, threatens the objectivity that's essential in their nefarious line of work...
In other words, actors who don’t preen from one scene to the next, undercutting the tension and suspense we desire from the genre.

Ideal scripts, in turn, need to be clever on three levels: the core storyline — in other words, the actual caper(s) — which should be intriguing, unusual and introduced with zest; the inevitable “unexpected” glitch that complicates matters, and which the filmmakers usually expect us viewers to anticipate; and, finally, the genuinely surprising second twist, which nobody sees coming, and which leaves us nodding with admiration.

Hats off to the writing/directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, then, because Focus delivers on all counts. Heist thrillers are one of my favorite genres; I’ve seen scores of good ones, and therefore usually anticipate all manner of revelations, hiccups and gotchas.

And yet Ficarra and Requa startled me, with their devious, eleventh-hour eyebrow-raiser. Well done.

On top of which, they’ve assembled ideal talent, starting with smooth-as-silk Will Smith, whose every word, deed, gesture and wary expression denote career larceny. He’s perfectly cast as the sophisticated Nicky Spurgeon, a seasoned master of misdirection, who deploys and unerringly supervises a veritable squadron of sharps, pick-pockets and thieves at crowded, high-profile events such as conventions and parades.

Smith is well matched by Margot Robbie’s Jess Barrett, a frisky blonde with a sensual wiggle, who worms her way into Nicky’s crew with the sort of breathy admiration and flirty innocence that Marilyn Monroe perfected, back in the day. Robbie will be remembered as Leonaro DiCaprio’s seductively controlling wife in 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, and let’s just say that she’s equally alluring here.

And just as unpredictable. Indeed, Jess wears “devious” like the slinky, skin-tight dresses into which Robbie gets poured; we can’t help wondering about her end game, from the moment she catches Nicky’s attention.

But, then, we also don’t expect him to be candid with her, so the question revolves around who’s likely to get played, and how quickly.

Meanwhile, Smith and Robbie — both dripping with sensual savoir-faire — circle each other with a playfully erotic grace that wholly eluded the characters in Fifty Shades of Grey.

The Lazarus Effect: Dead on arrival

The Lazarus Effect (2015) • View trailer 
One star. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, horror violence and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang

This is what passes for scary these days?

This laughable, ludicrous swill?

Modern audiences are getting very short-changed.

With his suddenly homicidal fiancée prowling the darkened corridors outside their lab,
Frank (Mark Duplass) cautions Eva (Sarah Bolger) to stay quiet, while he concocts a
silly plan to save the day.
This flaccid rubbish is bad in so many ways, one scarcely knows where to begin. Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater’s irrationally asinine script? David Gelb’s artless, hammer-handed directing? The cast of blithering idiots who couldn’t inject credibility into their dialogue if their lives depended on it?

In fairness, bad line readings aren’t entirely the fault of the cast; nobody could have made this clumsy nonsense sound persuasive. That said, the performances also don’t deserve placement on anybody’s résumé.

At its core, this is just another sloppy re-tread of the hoary Frankenstein saga, with bioengineered chemicals taking the place of good ol’ lightning. This, too, is part of the problem; Dawson and Slater haven’t an original thought between them, and seem content to blatantly rip off vastly superior predecessors.

And they can’t even do that well.

Frank (Mark Duplass) and his fiancée Zoe (Olivia Wilde), running a research lab at a fictitious, Berkeley-based university, are being assisted by graduate students Niko (Donald Glover) and Clay (Evan Peters). The team recently has hired an undergraduate videographer, Eva (Sarah Bolger), to record their progress.

(One cliché of bad writing, by the way, is the affectation of granting people no more than first names: Nothing calls faster attention to wafer-thin, one-dimensional characters.)

Although Eva’s presence gives Gelb an excuse to dabble in “found footage”-style video inserts, this affectation — mercifully — quickly is replaced by Michael Fimognari’s conventional cinematography. Which, to be fair, is a point in Gelb’s favor.

Anyway...

Frank and Zoe apparently obtained their original grant to develop a chemical “boost” that would help revive patients who code on an operating table: something akin to adrenalin or defibrillation. Somewhere along the way, though, they began attempting to resurrect deceased animals with their gloppy white formula; they finally succeed with a dog named Rocky.

Champagne all around.

But Rocky has come back ... ah ... different: warier, stronger and more aggressive. (Cue strong memories of Stephen King’s vastly superior Pet Sematary ... and I mean the book, not the lousy 1989 film adaptation.) Clay spouts the pseudo-scientific gibberish that “explains” this transformation: Thanks to the injected glop, Rocky’s brain is building massive neural networks, moving well past the usual limits of his species. Or some such nonsense.

Not sure why that would make him so violent, but hey, I’m no brain surgeon. (Neither is anybody in this movie. Obviously.)

Friday, February 20, 2015

McFarland USA: A genuine heart-warmer

McFarland USA (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for mild dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.20.15

For crowd-pleasing cinema, it’s hard to beat an inspirational underdog sports saga.

Particularly one that’s true. (Well, mostly.)

After yet another frustrating argument at home, the forlorn Thomas (Carlos Pratts, right)
briefly contemplates an extremely foolish way out of his miserable life. Cue the well-timed
arrival of Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner), whose calm and inspirational pep talk is the
stuff of which great underdog sports flicks are made.
Director Niki Caro and the team behind McFarland USA have the formula down cold, with an engaging blend of character drama, cross-cultural tension and stirring competition. Caro is blessed with an eye and ear for the plight of disenfranchised people who sometimes feel like strangers in their own country; she’s the New Zealand-based filmmaker who came to our attention with 2002’s stirring Whale Rider, and followed up with the equally compelling North Country.

Both those films concerned women stymied in their efforts to succeed on their own terms, and forced to battle long-established conventions steeped in predominantly male cultures.

McFarland USA trades gender wars for a gentle analysis of the class structure that exists in this country, and the cynical hopelessness endured by those who live on the wrong side of that divide. Caro and her writers — Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson — are smart enough to eschew strident sermons, recognizing that the lessons here will go down more smoothly in an environment of optimism and compassion.

On top of which, the story cleverly rotates the social barrier, by making its central character and his family — products of so-called privileged society — the “outsiders” in an environment that feels completely alien, and has its own longstanding rules of behavior and attitude.

High school football coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) has a history of anger-management issues. Bounced from one school to another, acquiring a dismal reputation along the way, in the autumn of 1987 he bottoms out in California’s San Joaquin Valley agricultural community of McFarland. As he and his family — wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie Fisher) — drive slowly through town, searching for their new home, the latter curiously asks, “Are we in Mexico?”

It’s a brave opening gambit, because the movie succeeds or fails right there: The slightest whiff of censure, disapproval or arrogance, and the story slides into uncomfortably racist territory. But Caro understands the peril involved, and she draws just the right line reading from young Fisher.

The moment passes safely, but is followed by several more; we still unconsciously hold our breath. The living room of the Whites’ new home is dominated by an overpowering image painted directly onto the wall. The elderly woman next door presents them with a “new neighbor” gift: a chicken. The local car culture roars past the house late into each night; roosters blast them out of bed each dawn.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

One Chance: Quite endearing, if slightly flawed

One Chance (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and needlessly, for brief profanity and mild sexual candor

By Derrick Bang


[Note: I’ve given up on waiting for this film to be granted wide release in the States; it obviously ain’t gonna happen. The Weinstein Company initially promised us this British import in late 2013, and then delayed it to last spring, and then granted it limited release in October. Apparently, that’s all we’ll get ... and yet there’s also no word yet of home video release, despite its DVD availability across the pond for at least a year now. Such are the idiosyncrasies of U.S. film distribution ... and, regardless, I’m not letting this review go to waste!]

During a courtship that's frequently too cute for words, Paul (James Corden) never misses
an opportunity to serenade Julz (Alexandra Roach) with one of his favorite opera arias.
Some people are blessed and cursed in equal measure, and that’s certainly the case with Britain’s Paul Potts. Although graced with a lovely voice and a childhood fondness for opera and choir singing, these interests made him a frequent target for contemptuous peers in the Bristol-based, former quarry hamlet of Fishponds, where he grew up.

The rather unusual arc of Potts’ subsequent life is the subject of this whimsical, sometimes melancholy biographical drama from David Frankel, who previously charmed us with gentle character-clash comedies such as The Devil Wears Prada and the under-appreciated The Big Year.

Frankel is a good choice for this material; I’m less certain about scripter Justin Zackham, thus far known only for The Bucket List and The Big Wedding, both broad-strokes comedies fronted by A-list casts. One Chance is his first feature-length stab at factual material; while retaining many elements crucial to Potts’ life, Zackham plays fast and loose with other important details, for no apparent reason.

The real Potts has two brothers and a sister, all of whom are MIA in this film. Their father was a bus driver, not a steelworker. Most crucially, Potts wasn’t nearly as socially inept as this film suggests; he was elected the youngest member of the Bristol City Council as a Liberal Democrat in 1996, a position he held for seven years. That far-from-minor detail also remains MIA.

It could be argued that none of this matters, in the telling of a real-life Cinderella story, and that’s true ... to a point. But Potts’ actual experiences are sufficiently compelling to warrant a more accurate account of his ups and downs; heightening his misfit qualities, to make him even more of an underdog, feels like gilding the lily.

Even so, Frankel and Zackham skillfully work our emotions, building us to what should be a joyfully shared triumph ... and then they pull the rug out from under us. I’ve rarely seen a feel-good film so badly miscalculate its finale, employing a hasty voice-over to replace what should have been, at the very least, an ecstatic montage.

It’s an atrocious use of said-bookism: We don’t want to be told what happens during the climax, we want to watch it happen. Good grief, that’s basic Storytelling 1A.

Sigh.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey: Colorless

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for strong sexual content, profanity and considerable nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.13.15

While it’s certainly true that this film is better than the atrociously written book on which it’s based, that’s damning with very faint praise.

Because this film still is a stinker.

Hunky gazillionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) makes Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) an
offer she absolutely should refuse: to become his "submissive" during a brief "relationship"
that he promises won't include love. Hey, it's every girl's dream, right?
Dakota Johnson is reasonably persuasive as Anastasia Steele, the naïve, freshly minted college graduate who enters a web of sexual sin with a blend of curiosity, wariness and endearing, flirty innocence. Kelly Marcel’s screenplay also makes Ana smarter and spunkier than the dim-bulb imbecile of E.L. James’ so-called novel, who constantly talked and behaved as if she were 21 going on 12.

But Jamie Dornan is a total joke as billionaire, super-stud businessman Christian Grey. Dornan couldn’t act his way out of a snowball in hell; he actually makes Keanu Reeves look talented. Dornan is as uncomfortable in this role as his Grey is in his impeccably tailored clothes: stiff, awkward and wholly unconvincing.

Dornan’s line readings are the stuff of acting workshop nightmares ... although, in fairness, I’m not sure anybody could breathe credible life into this wooden dialogue.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson has precisely two tricks up her sleeve, and she uses both to wretched excess: constant tight-tight-tight close-ups on her two stars, and instructions that they deliver every word with breathy, clipped, arched-eyebrow hesitation. Both affectations are the stuff of turgid afternoon TV soap operas, a level to which this film constantly sinks.

An over-reliance on tight close-ups minimizes a story’s sense of time and place; it’s also boring. Most significantly, it denotes a director who doesn’t trust her cast, the theory being that (for example) it’s easier for Dornan to emote if cinematographer Seamus McGarvey moves his camera close enough for us to count the pores on Christian Grey’s cheeks.

That’s the trouble with theories: Not all of them turn out to be true.

Taylor-Johnson has only one previous feature film to her credit: Nowhere Boy, 2009’s thoughtful biography of John Lennon’s early years. It’s leagues better than this dull, turgid, over-hyped and under-delivering mess.

Kingsman: Gleefully vicious carnage

Kingsman (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, sexual candor and very strong violence

By Derrick Bang

At its more entertaining moments — which are many — this is a wildly audacious, totally bonkers spy spoof in the classic 1960s mold; the best echoes hearken back to James Coburn’s two grand Derek Flint flicks, Our Man Flint and In Like Flint.

When Harry (Colin Firth, center) brings Eggsy (Taron Egerton, left) to a posh tailor's shop
in order to outfit the young man properly, they're surprised to find Richard Valentine (Samuel
L. Jackson) present for the same reason. "Surprised," because Harry and Valentine already
have learned that they're mortal enemies...
It’s clever, funny, exhilarating and ferociously paced by director Matthew Vaughn and editors Eddie Hamilton and Jon Harris.

Unfortunately, it’s also atrociously, grotesquely violent in spots: “wet” to a degree that makes a mockery of its R rating. Such intentions are signaled quite early, when one of our protagonists is dispatched in a manner more appropriate to gory horror flicks ... and, indeed, I recall seeing precisely such butchery in the gruesome 2001 remake of 13 Ghosts.

Comic-book sensibilities or not, this is pretty repugnant stuff for a mainstream production sporting an A-list cast topped by Colin Firth and Michael Caine. And while this early scene is the worst, it’s by no means alone; one particular character — the aptly named Gazelle, played with panache by Sofia Boutella — is responsible for quite a few sliced and diced limbs.

At the same time...

There’s no denying that Vaughn is playing to his fan base, which enthusiastically embraced his similarly über-violent 2010 adaptation of Kick-Ass. Such folks are guaranteed to cheer an all-stops-out melee that erupts in the third act: a brutally choreographed display of hand-to-hand slaughter on par with Uma Thurman’s assault on “The Crazy 88’s” in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.

So be advised: This is humor at its darkest, and definitely not for the faint of heart.

Such cautionary notes aside...

Vaughn and frequent co-scripting colleague Jane Goldman open their film with a couple of prologues that introduce both Harry Hart (Firth) and Kingsman, the outwardly genteel super-super-secret spy agency for which he works, under the code name of Galahad. As befits an organization that bestows such sobriquets, the Kingsman operatives answer to a chief dubbed Arthur (Caine), who dispatches his agents to handle, ah, “messy” world situations that evade both conventional policing and standard-issue covert agencies.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Still Alice: Profoundly moving

Still Alice (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang


Rare performances transcend acting; we cease being aware of the celebrity star, or the idiosyncrasies of craft and talent, and instead unreservedly accept the character being portrayed.

As her mother (Julianne Moore, right) slides ever further into the helplessness of
Alzheimer's, Lydia (Kristen Stewart) finds that the minor issues that prompted a partial
estrangement no longer matter, and she subsequently becomes her Mom's constant
companion and most sympathetic friend.
Such is the case with Julianne Moore’s riveting, persuasive and heartbreaking work in Still Alice, directed and scripted by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, from neuroscientist Lisa Genova’s 2009 debut novel of the same title. Calling the film a vital document of our time seems both pretentious and insufficient, and yet the label is accurate; thoughtful, gracefully constructed dramas of this nature do more to enhance the national (perhaps global?) consciousness than a wealth of news stories or TV documentaries.

And if Moore wins the Academy Award for Best Actress — which she certainly deserves — then this little indie film may get the additional exposure that it also deserves.

She stars here as Alice Howland, a respected university linguistics professor who enjoys a loving and comfortable life with her husband, John (Alec Baldwin). They’re at the peak of their respective careers, and have raised three children: Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart). Life seems ideal.

And then, gradually, Alice realizes that she’s misplacing things to a degree that feels somewhere north of “normal.”

Her mild concern erupts into full-blown terror when, during a routine morning jog across campus, she suddenly doesn’t know where she is, and has no idea where she’s going.

She immediately seeks medical consultation; the eventual diagnosis is Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Knowing full well what that involves, Alice faces the certainty of slowly losing all her memories and perception: everything revolving around her professional work, and ultimately even the basic recognition of best friends and family members.

What follows is not easy to watch, to say the least. Glatzer and Westmoreland carefully (and wisely) eschew any sort of “movie-making” technique, preferring instead to depict Alice’s increasing disorientation in a quiet, cinema-verité manner that is shattering, even as she fights heroically to salvage ever-smaller pieces of herself.

The title is significant, because it speaks to this struggle: More than anything else, Alice wants her family, friends and colleagues to understand that she’s still herself. But there can be no last-minute reprieves: no deus ex machina medical miracles that will pull her back from the brink. Although Glatzer and Westmoreland conclude their film with what could be termed one of Alice’s “last best days,” we understand what is to come.