Friday, December 19, 2014

The Hobbit, The Battle of the Five Armies: At long last, the grand finale!

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for intense fantasy action violence and some truly scary monsters

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.19.14

Peter Jackson certainly knows how to stage a spectacle.

He’d have had a great time during Hollywood’s Golden Age, choreographing the fabled casts of thousands.

As a massive battle between elves, dwarves, humans and nasty orcs rages about them,
Gandalf (Ian McKellen, left) and Bard (Luke Evans) realize that the ghastly orc armies are
being directed by the orc lord Azog the Defiler, standing on a nearby hilltop. Clearly, he
must be stopped ... but how?
That said, he has become a poor judge of narrative structure. Although this final installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit builds to a rousing, suspenseful, crowd-pleasing climax, this cinematic saga definitely didn’t deserve the three-part presentation that seems to have been dictated entirely by commerce.

Consider the irony: We couldn’t get enough of Jackson’s three-part adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and fans eagerly snapped up the extended-edition DVDs, to savor all the additional scenes left on the cutting-room floor. That adulation was entirely warranted, because those three books are extremely dense.

But The Hobbit lacks that complexity; it’s a shorter, single book, and — more significantly — is aimed at a much younger audience. Granted, Jackson and his fellow scripters — Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and horror maestro Guillermo del Toro — drew from the 125 pages of notes and appendices included with modern editions of The Lord of the Ring ... but, even so, this newest trilogy has suffered from bloat since its first installment. (I still haven’t recovered from the slapstick, Disney-esque dwarf songs in Bilbo’s dining room.)

Although the major plot points have been impressively realized, there’s a definite sense of treading water along the way, and extraneous characters we’d be better off without. Notable case in point: the Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry) and his weaselly aide (Mikael Persbrandt), who popped up in the middle installment and return here. They’re no more than stunt casting, particularly in Fry’s case, and their characters seem to have wandered in from a Blackadder installment. Very poor judgment, on Jackson’s part.

More disappointing, though, is the fact that — in this third and final installment — Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins has become a bystander in his own story. That’s a shame on all sorts of levels, not the least of which is the lessened degree to which we’re able to enjoy Freeman’s marvelously subtle performance. I just love the way he twitches his nose, or starts to say something, checks himself, and then decides that silence is the better part of wisdom.

Freeman gets more mileage out of Bilbo’s double-take decisions not to speak, than many of these supporting characters deliver via pages of dialogue.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Best Christmas Movies of All Time

Not quite a decade ago, and responding to a series of similar lists that had popped up immediately before and after the millennial change, I put considerable thought into my own tabulation of the best (and worst) Christmas movies of all time.

A single 10-film list obviously wasn't sufficient, so I broke it down into various categories, in order to include most-people-think-of-them-classics, less obvious alternatives and even seasonal TV specials. And the turkeys, of course; the Hollywood graveyard is littered with Christmas movie flops.

The list remained unchanged until 2011, when one newcomer pushed another title off the list. Since then, no further amendments ... and no surprise there, since holiday-themed movies have been rather sparse during the past three years. Goodness, there really aren't any this year!

So if you want to know which version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol made my list, or if you're seeking something you've not watched 13 times, check out the list. I guarantee you'll find a few titles worth viewing on December 24 or 25.

Ho, ho, ho!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Top Five: My walk with Andre

Top Five (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for strong sexual content, drug use, nudity, crude humor and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.12.14

Caught an interesting film the other day.

Concerns a disillusioned movie star who, having turned his back on a crowd-pleasing and profitable pop-culture franchise, attempts to re-invent himself as a serious actor by writing, directing and starring in a highly unlikely vanity project. And, to make things more intriguing, this film’s approach and directorial style are self-referential to the point where real life and reel life blur before our eyes.

Much as he hates to play along, Andre (Chris Rock) agrees to smile for the ubiquitous
cameras on behalf of his fiancée, Erica (Gabrielle Union), a realty TV star who insists that
her entire life take place in full view of her devoted fans.
No, I’m not talking about Birdman. As it happens, I’m referring to Chris Rock’s Top Five.

Yes, Virginia; it would appear that these Hollywood types have been reading each other’s mail again.

I mean, seriously, how does this happen? How many forlorn, anguished twentysomething women attempted to find themselves via thousand-mile solo treks through wilderness in the late 20th century? And within months of each other, we get biographical movies about both of them?

The celluloid gods do work in mysterious ways.

But I digress.

Although Top Five doesn’t have the ambition or directorial pizzazz of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, the similarities are strong ... as is Rock’s savage indictment of today’s vanity-laden, social media-obsessed excuse for popular entertainment. And, much the way Iñárritu employed cinematic legerdemain to add visual snap to his narrative, Rock employs the rat-a-tat delivery of stand-up comedy to tell the story of New York City-based comedian-turned-film star Andre Allen’s effort to re-cast his career in a manner that fans aren’t about to embrace.

The results are uneven, with some of Andre’s sidebar detours plunging too far into wince-inducing vulgarity, but there’s no denying the shrewd, insightful analysis of how we tend to devour our celebrities these days. We must remember that Rock masterminded four hilarious and sharply savvy seasons of TV’s Everybody Loves Chris, which unerringly skewered school- and family-induced teen angst while simultaneously being quite funny.

Andre (played by Rock), as far as his fans are concerned, hasn’t been funny for a long time. He abandoned stand-up years ago, seeking success in Hollywood; he found it in a serious of slapstick Hammy the Bear action comedies where only his voice could be recognized beneath his fur-laden costume. Needless to say, the artistic returns have been limited. (Imagine if Tim Allen, having graduated from the improv stage, achieved fame solely as the voice of Buzz Lightyear in Pixar’s Toy Story franchise.)

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Theory of Everything: A beautiful mind

The Theory of Everything (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for dramatic intensity and mild suggestive material

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.5.14

It’s necessary, up front, to recognize that this film is adapted from Jane Wilde Hawking’s 1999 memoir, Music to Move the Stars: A Life with Stephen (extensively updated and re-published in 2008, as Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen).

During Cambridge's annual May Dance, Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) can't quite get into the
spirit of the event itself — for openers, he refuses to dance! — but his goofy charm
nonetheless makes an increasingly strong impact on Jane (Felicity Jones).
We therefore cannot be surprised by the saintly hue that Felicity Jones brings to her portrayal of Jane: devoted, compassionate and (particularly) patient beyond comprehension. To be sure, selfless caregivers certainly exist in real life: quiet heroes who rarely receive the admiration they so richly deserve. And there’s no doubt that Jane Hawking must’ve had a very hard life, during her early years with a husband succumbing to motor neuron disease (MND, which is related to ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

But no displays of impatience or hostility, no raging against the universe, no signs of crumbling on Jane’s part? Even if we acknowledge traditional British reserve, that’s a bit hard to swallow here.

Hard, perhaps, but not impossible ... thanks to James Marsh’s thoughtful, sensitive direction, and the incandescent performances by Jones and most particularly Eddie Redmayne. The latter looks, moves and sounds so much like Stephen Hawking, that at times it’s hard not to believe it’s actually him on the screen.

Most crucially, Redmayne captures Hawking’s goofy grin, sparkling eyes and irrepressible, Puckish sense of humor. After the MND robs the man of his limbs — and, eventually, even his ability to speak — Redmayne nonetheless continues to convey a wealth of emotion with faint head movements, raised eyebrows, a twitch of that famous smile, and his darting, ever-inquisitive eyes that miss nothing.

We’ve not seen an actor so thoroughly inhabit a physically challenged role since Mathieu Amalric’s portrayal of Jean-Dominique Bauby, in 2007’s equally fine The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Bauby’s life changed in an instant, though, whereas Hawking — and his friends, colleagues and family — endured the heartbreak of his slow, debilitating slide into utter helplessness.

But we begin in happier times. It’s 1963, where Stephen is a cosmology student at Cambridge University: the mischievous, easily distracted member of a doctoral team being supervised by famed British physicist Dennis W. Sciama (David Thewlis, in a nicely understated performance). Stephen’s apparent disconnection from real-world requirements is a source of constant amusement to roommate and best friend Brian (Harry Lloyd), who probably has to remind his buddy to eat and sleep on a regular basis.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Horrible Bosses 2: Fire 'em all!

Horrible Bosses 2 (2014) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated R, for relentless profanity and crude sexual content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.28.14

Director Sean Anders apparently was content to let this film’s three stars — Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day — babble through much of their obviously improvised, rapid-fire dialogue.

Oddly enough, Rex (Chris Pine, right) doesn't seem all that bothered after learning that our
inept heroes — from left, Dale (Charlie Day), Nick (Jason Bateman) and Kurt (Jason
Sudeikis) — planned to kidnap him. Seems that Rex has his own issues with his wealthy,
overbearing father...
Sometimes the results are amusing.

Usually ... not.

Dumb-bunny comedies often aren’t nearly as funny as those involved seem to think, and that’s definitely the case here. Nor are the “even funnier” out-takes, which unspool over the closing credits, as uproarious as Bateman, Sudeikis, Day and their co-stars want us to believe.

This film’s 2011 predecessor was pretty thin gruel to begin with: a potty-mouthed waste of time and talent that was little more than a race to the tasteless bottom by all involved. The notion that it did enough business to warrant a sequel is astonishing, but Hollywood — as always — lives by the quote often attributed to H.L. Mencken: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”

And so here we are, with a second dose of Nick (Bateman), Kurt (Sudeikis) and Dale (Day).

This new entry is slightly better, thanks to the presence of co-star Chris Pine. He thoroughly embraces his gleefully condescending, spoiled rich guy role with a breezy élan that adds momentum to this fitful comedy every time he pops into a scene. He’s genuinely funny, and manages to be such without relying on the vulgarity that’s pretty much everybody else’s sole defining character trait.

The plot, then:

Having decided that working for “horrible bosses” undervalues their true potential, Nick, Kurt and Dale have become entrepreneurs with their own home care product: the so-called “Shower Buddy,” just the sort of gadget that pops up on late-night TV commercials for $19.95. Their effort to promote this item on a local morning chat show doesn’t quite work as expected, but the exposure does bring them to the attention of father-and-son investors Bert and Rex Hanson (Christoph Waltz and Pine).

Overjoyed by an initial order of 100,000 units, our three stooges overlook the cautionary step of obtaining a down payment in order to fund this massive production run. Bert subsequently cancels the order — which he intended to do all along — knowing full well that Nick, Kurt and Dale will be forced to foreclose. At that point, the Hansons will scoop up the entire company and all those Shower Buddies at fire-sale prices.

It’s merely standard-issue corporate raider behavior, which Bert cheerfully acknowledges, knowing full well that our hapless idiots can’t do anything about it.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 — Fails to catch fire

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, disturbing action and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.21.14

As was true of its two predecessors, this newest big-screen installment in the Hunger Games franchise follows its source quite closely.

Which, in this case, isn’t a good thing.

When Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, foreground right) agrees to check on the injured civilians
in a District 8 hospital, she's joined by, from left, Commander Paylor (Patina Miller) Gale
(Liam Hemsworth), Boggs (Mahershala Ali) and Pollux (Elden Henson).
Suzanne Collins’ third novel is gawdawful: a complete betrayal of her characters, and of her readers. I can’t imagine what the author was smoking when she wrote it, but this much is obvious: Her heart wasn’t in it, and — in hindsight — she should have quit after the first one.

My sympathies therefore lie with scripters Peter Craig and Danny Strong, tasked with making a cinematic silk purse out of this sow’s ear of a book. With credits such as The Town, Game Change and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, they seem an odd choice to craft a post-apocalyptic narrative that spends so much time inside the head of a strong and resourceful young woman, which may explain why Katniss Everdeen is such a mess in this film.

Not even Jennifer Lawrence, who aside from her considerable talent certainly knows this character by now, can persuasively deliver the frankly ludicrous emotional arcs demanded by this storyline.

On top of which, this film suffers the problem that plagued the penultimate Harry Potter film. Both J.K. Rowling’s The Deathly Hallows and Collins’ Mockingjay save most of their action for the second half, limiting the first portions to sidebar exposition and increasingly melodramatic angst.

If Hollywood, in its cynical desire to wring as much money as possible from these franchises, chops each final book in half, we’re therefore tormented with a two-hour film “teaser” that accomplishes ... almost nothing. Harry Potter 7.1 was a yawn: a time-filler that should have been subtitled Harry and Hermione Go Camping.

Hunger Games 3.1, in turn, should be dubbed Katniss Has a Good Cry. Repeatedly.

It’s not that Katniss doesn’t deserve an emotional collapse; goodness knows, she has been through a lot during the year-plus covered by the first two books (and films). But it’s distressing to see a character who initially impressed us as a resourceful fighter, suddenly transformed into a near-helpless victim who gets acted upon.

Granted, Katniss is destined to regain her spunk as things continue, but that’s a discussion for next year’s Hunger Games 3.2.

Meanwhile, we’re stuck with this one.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Foxcatcher: Men behaving badly

Foxcatcher (2014) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, drug use and violence

By Derrick Bang

The über-rich haven’t been this creepy since 1990’s Reversal of Fortune.

And that was based on a true story, as well.

John Du Pont (Steve Carell, left) knows precisely how to inspire the impressionable Mark
Schultz (Channing Tatum), and for a time the weathy older man seems well-meaning, if
a bit daft. But this relationship dynamic is about to turn very, very uncomfortable.
Foxcatcher is director Bennett Miller’s highly unsettling account of wealthy heir John du Pont’s bewildering (to the outside world) decision to position himself as head coach, trainer and sponsor of the U.S. wrestling team hoping to qualify for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. This scheme is granted public legitimacy when brothers Mark and Dave Schultz are dragged into du Pont’s ludicrous, vanity-laden quest, accelerating an already uncomfortable sibling dynamic that becomes increasingly toxic.

Disaster is inevitable; the only question is what form the crisis will take.

Miller excels at getting the best from his casts, and he’s noted for guiding actors to Oscar nominations — and wins — in compelling, character-driven slices of history. Both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener earned well-deserved nominations for Capote; Hoffman went home with the prize. Brad Pitt never looked better than he was in Moneyball, and Miller worked a modern miracle by orchestrating goofball Jonah Hill’s transformation into a serious actor.

But it’s equally important to note that Miller surrounds himself with some of Hollywood’s most skilled writers, who also earned Academy Award nominations (respectively) for their work on Capote and Moneyball. I’ve absolutely no doubt that E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman will garner similar praise for their insidiously subtle, squirm-inducing depiction of what emerged as the late 1980s’ most bizarre sports scandal.

But it’s hard to detect the fine-tuned screenplay right away, because of the almost scary degree to which this film’s three stars inhabit their respective roles. They’re all excellent, crossing that threshold where we often forget the actor playing the part, and wholly accept that we’ve somehow been transported back in time, and granted a window on the activities of these actual people.

Dave and younger brother Mark Schultz were heroes at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, both taking gold medals in different weight classes of men’s freestyle wrestling; they also took world golds at, respectively, Kiev (1983) and Budapest (1985).

They’re played here by Mark Ruffalo (almost unrecognizable) and Channing Tatum. The film’s narrative catches them during the early build-up to Seoul, and their circumstances couldn’t be more different. As often is the case with siblings, their personalities are wholly distinct. Dave radiates calm, confidence and authority; Mark, although idolizing his older brother, chafes at being in his shadow.