Friday, July 31, 2015

Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation: Solid Cruise control

Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.31.15

While not quite the exhilarating thrill ride of 2011’s Ghost Protocol, which so spectacularly revived the stalled franchise, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation nonetheless delivers plenty of action and suspense, leavened with just the right soupçon of droll wit.

Every time Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) gets into a jam — which is frequently, in this action-
packed adventure — the mysterious Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) isn't far behind. Trouble is,
Ethan doesn't know anything about her ... including whether she can be trusted.
Although star/producer Tom Cruise’s guiding hand continues to be felt, he wisely has retreated from the camera-hogging antics that marred the series’ second and third entries. I’d like to think he bowed to the wisdom of co-producer J.J. Abrams — absolutely the 21st century wunderkind, when it comes to chaperoning beloved pop-culture properties (most notably Star Trek and Star Wars, in addition to his work here) — who astutely revived the formula that creator/producer Bruce Geller exploited so well, during the show’s initial seven-year television run.

Which is to say: teamwork, teamwork, teamwork. Along with way-cool tech, and the signature locked room-style assignments that require ingenious solutions ... hence the whole reason behind that “impossible” moniker.

Cruise & Co. introduced the increasingly crazed physical stunts and, yes, the welcome humor. (Geller’s show, for all its appeal, always was a bit dry.) The result has blossomed into an engaging blend of Bond, Hitchcock and other action/suspense sources.

Cruise also deserves credit for what has become another Mission staple: genuine stunt work by actual performers, as opposed to Hollywood’s increasing reliance on CGI and green-screen trickery. It really does make a difference, in terms of our emotional engagement; when Cruise roars pell-mell into a motorcycle chase, taking curves at suicidal speeds, our heart-in-mouth response is that much stronger.

San Andreas may have been larkish fun, but it was a cartoon: computer-driven artifice, from start to finish. At no time did we think Dwayne Johnson was in danger. Not so with Cruise, and his increasingly legendary Mission stunts. Safety straps and concealed rigging notwithstanding, there’s no question of his physical involvement in crazed, hazardous stuff ... in part because it’s clearly a point of pride. Like Burt Lancaster back in the day, Cruise wants to match or exceed the authentic antics of his various stunt colleagues.

Unfortunately, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie front-loads this newest film with all the best action scenes, resulting in a noticeable letdown during the third act. Ghost Protocol climaxed, midway, with the dog-nuts Burj Khalifa climb, but that film’s director (Brad Bird) wisely held an equally audacious sequence for the finale: the breathtaking chase amid the shuffling vehicles in a multi-story car park.

McQuarrie, apparently wanting to suck us in right away, opens with the perilous stunt that has made media waves for the past several months, with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt hanging for dear life on the exterior of an A400 Airbus, as it taxis down a runway and then roars into the sky.

It’s just like the best James Bond pre-credits sequences — the one opening The World Is Not Enough being a personal favorite — and, no question, a true attention-getter.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Vacation: An appalling trip

Vacation (2015) • View trailer 
TURKEY (no stars). Rated R, for relentless profanity, crude and sexual content, and brief graphic nudity

By Derrick Bang

Wow. And I thought Pixels was bad.

Actually, it is bad. But this one’s worse.

Are you sure this is a good idea? Rusty (Ed Helms, far right) insists that their whitewater
rafting guide's sudden romantic breakup won't affect their excursion down the Colorado
River. The rest of the family — from left, James (Skyler Gisondo), Kevin (Steele Stebbins)
and Debbie (Christina Applegate) — have their doubts...
Even by the deplorable, lowest-common-denominator standards set by the likes of Ted 2 and most Melissa McCarthy vehicles, this updated Vacation is a ghastly train wreck, and an embarrassment to all concerned.

I’m stunned by the notion that writer/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein actually got paid for their so-called work on this turkey. Where can I get a job like that?

Far from accepting a paycheck for this mess, they should have been forced to surrender every cent they made on previous efforts. Oh, wait ... that would be both Horrible Bosses entries, and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Not much profit participation there.

I still can’t fathom how Hollywood works. On the basis of the above, the most recent of which was the gawdawful Horrible Bosses 2, these talentless hacks are “rewarded” with a directorial debut?

We can pray only for celestial justice: that this will be the first and last film ever directed by Daley and Goldstein.

In fairness, this remake is “justified” better than some. Rusty Griswold, the kid who endured the world’s worst family road trip back in 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation (and who was played by a young Anthony Michael Hall), has grown up to be a dweeb every bit as inept as Daddy Clark (Chevy Chase, back in the day). Sensing family ennui, the now-adult Rusty decides to spice things up by re-creating that long-ago excursion.

Cue another dire road trip, with all sorts of calamities and opportunities for mortification.

Trouble is, Daley and Goldstein obviously never got past that one-sentence pitch, which somehow buffaloed Warner Bros. execs into bankrolling this disaster. As a result, this new Vacation doesn’t merely feel random, or made up from one day to the next; it’s a blatant exercise in lazy filmmaking.

Cast members don’t even try to emote; everybody just sorta stands around and intones lines, with all the dramatic heft of a toddler learning her first words. I’ll bet these folks didn’t even memorize their dialogue; I’d swear they were reading off-camera cue cards.

It could be argued, of course, that this script didn’t deserve better.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Paper Towns: Things aren't as they seem

Paper Towns (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for mild profanity, partial nudity and teen sexuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.24.15

Today’s teens continue to live in great times, with respect to movies that speak to their experiences.

When Margo (Cara Delevingne) entices Quentin (Nat Wolff) to help her during a late-night
bit of "payback," their first stop is a big-box store, where he grows increasingly nervous
over the unusual items that get tossed into the shopping basket.
Best of all, we’re getting solid, respectful adaptations of existing books, graced with thoughtful, multi-faceted storylines by authors who understand the importance of plot logic, character development and — wait for it — subtlety.

As opposed to, say, this week’s other high-profile release: the bombastic, über-dumb Pixels.

Paper Towns comes from the pen of best-selling teen-lit author John Green, whose most recent novel, The Fault in Our Stars, brightened movie screens last summer. Paper Towns is an earlier work; it’s also a quieter, mildly sneaky narrative that builds to a somewhat unexpected conclusion ... albeit one that feels just right, in hindsight.

The sensitive, finely tuned screenplay comes from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who certainly know the territory; aside from having scripted The Fault in Our Stars last year, in 2013 they also delivered a poignant adaptation of Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now.

Paper Towns is cut from different cloth, most visibly because it doesn’t concern emotional damaged or terminally ill characters. The teens populating this Florida suburb are reasonably ordinary, and in a way that’s the crux of the narrative: None of us wishes an ordinary life, particularly not as a teen. We all hope for something extravagant: or, in the words of our protagonist, the “one miracle” to which he figures everybody is entitled.

In the case of adolescent Quentin “Q” Jacobsen (Josiah Cerio), living in the outskirts of Orlando, his miracle arrives when Margo Roth Spiegelman (Hannah Alligood) and her family move into the house across the street. Just like that, Quentin is smitten. Proximity turns them into bike-to-school buddies, but Quentin soon discovers that Margo is a wild child, whose adventurous nature eventually exceeds his comfort zone.

She’s ... disappointed. She doesn’t exactly say or do anything, but young Alligood’s gaze reflects gentle censure, perhaps even betrayal.

Flash-forward to the present day, toward the end of everybody’s senior year in high school. Quentin (now Nat Wolff) and Margo (Cara Delevingne) have drifted apart, become all but strangers. She has cultivated a semi-scandalous reputation, replete with wild stories passed within the school corridors.

Pixels: Game over!

Pixels (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, for occasional vulgarity

By Derrick Bang

Movies emerge from all sorts of sources.

Back in the Golden Age, adaptations came exclusively from popular novels and the theater stage. As we moved into the television age, iconic network characters leaped to the big screen, and then the dam truly burst, with high-concept projects concocted from songs, comic books, board games, computer games and even theme park attractions.

With Earth under attack by rather strange invaders, our heroes — from left, Violet
(Michelle Monaghan), Brenner (Adam Sandler) and Ludlow (Josh Gad) — confront one
crazy opponent after another. And yes, that's Q*bert on the far right: apparently on the
side of the angels.

 Most of those latter efforts, it must be mentioned, didn’t amount to much. No surprise there: Novels and plays contain rich narrative material constructed by writers who devoted a great deal of care to nit-picky details like plot logic and character development. Computer games offer little more than pop-culture images. (Anybody remember enduring Super Mario Bros.? Or either of the two Mortal Kombat bombs?)

Pixels derives from a 2010 short film of the same title by French writer/director Patrick Jean. It’s readily available via YouTube, Vimeo and various other Internet sources, and I heartily recommend the experience. It’s far more satisfying, at slightly more than 2 minutes (!), than this 98-minute, big-screen exercise in brain-dead chaos.

Scripters Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling clearly borrowed heavily from the original Ghostbusters template, while acknowledging the current resurgence of interest in early-gen computer games such as Asteroids and Pac-Man. But the Ghostbusters riffs are strongest, down to our heroes’ similar uniforms and even stance, while using similar high-tech weapons to battle this story’s unlikely celestial invaders.

The presence of Dan Aykroyd, in an early scene, suggests his approval of this acknowledgment of past glories.

Trouble is, Ghostbusters was a vastly superior film, with a much better-developed storyline. Pixels is random and clumsy, its under-developed characters graceless and often left to stand about, as if wondering what to do next. The overall narrative is so poorly executed that it frequently feels as if different sets of writers contributed various scenes, leaving director Chris Columbus to stitch things together.

A task at which he failed.

I had to remind myself that Columbus helmed iconic films such as Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, the first two Harry Potter entries and the big-screen version of Rent. Then again, Columbus also brought us lesser efforts such as Bicentennial Man and I Love You, Beth Cooper, so he’s not immune to errors in judgment. Or skill.

But Pixels, without question, is the nadir of his (thus far) 30-year career.

Which is a shame, because this film’s first act shows promise. A 1982 prologue introduces us to young gamers Brenner (Anthony Ippolito) and Cooper (Jared Riley), who marvel at the delights to be found within their town’s first video game emporium. Their tag-along younger friend, Ludlow (Jacob Shinder), is content to fall in love/lust with a pixilated ninja babe dubbed Lady Lisa.

Brenner proves to be a natural, working his way up to a championship match against an arrogant young visitor named Eddie (Andrew Bambridge), who has dubbed himself “The Fire-Blaster.” The match is filmed, with the footage inserted by NASA into a deep-space probes: one of many examples, to entities Out There, of what Earth is like at that moment in time.

Flash-forward to the modern day. Cooper (now Kevin James) has, rather unexpectedly, become President of the United States. (One wonders who was inept enough to have lost that election.) He’s a meatball best known for embarrassing photo ops, but James nonetheless makes him somewhat endearing, in an oafish way.

Ludlow (Josh Gad) has become a conspiracy theory whacko (“Kennedy fired first!”) who still carries a torch for the imaginary Lady Lisa. Brenner (Adam Sandler) has blossomed into the ultimate under-achiever, as a roving tech nerd who installs home entertainment systems.

In that capacity, Brenner encounters Violet (Michelle Monaghan), a recently jilted wife, and her young son, Matty (Matt Lintz). The subsequent meet-cute connection is mutual all around, and also endearing: further proof that Sandler, when held in check, can be goofily charming while still delivering one-line zingers.

But there’s no time to explore romantic possibilities, thanks to a crisis that erupts halfway around the world, as a U.S. military base is attacked by free-flying whatzits that emit laser-like bursts which transform everything — buildings, people, the landscape — into small, multi-colored cubes of various sizes.

The assault is accompanied by a weird musical fanfare that Cooper immediately recognizes, when he views footage of the event. He summons Brenner to be sure, and they agree: Earth has just been attacked by the fictitious entities of the early 1980s computer game Galaga.

Ludlow supplies the next essential bit of information, rather mysteriously inserted into an old VHS tape he’d been watching. (No cable or satellite channels in his house; that’s how the government monitors people!) Apparently, that 1982 NASA tape was intercepted by an alien race that viewed the gaming footage as an act of war, and has created warriors based on those games, and sent them to Earth. The “rules” are spelled out by re-created video manifestations of characters from early 1980s TV shows.

It’s a duel to potential planetary destruction, with Earth granted three “lives,” as in classic arcade games. We’ve already lost the first life, and of course we lose the second after an assault in India, nobody having believed our heroes.

Then, finally acknowledging the inevitable, the first fair-fight clash takes place in England’s Hyde Park, with our newly jump-suited “Arcaders” taking on the rapidly descending Centipede. And, oh yes, it proves a fair fight thanks to weapons hastily devised by the tech wizards at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where — imagine the coincidence! — Violet happens to be a lieutenant colonel.

The old “gang” is fully assembled with the arrival of the smarmy and larcenous Eddie (Peter Dinklage), rescued from a long prison stretch and promised various things if he’ll help.

Which is right about the point that Columbus loses any semblance of control over this whacked-out storyline. The second act is bonkers, but at least visually impressive; effects supervisor Matthew Butler enthusiastically embraced the challenge of bringing all these 1980s video games into our real world. He and production designer Peter Wenham definitely hold our attention, even as things become progressively sillier.

The third act, however, defies description.

By this point, Herlihy and Dowling have abandoned any effort at coherence; they just toss stuff into the mix, like spaghetti hurled against a wall, to see if anything will stick.

Brian Cox and Sean Bean wander aimlessly through a few scenes, as a belligerent American admiral and an equally confrontational British SAS officer. The DARPA tech team includes a glass-brained android (Tom McCarthy) who’s just sorta taken for granted, as if such a breakthrough were commonplace.

Ludlow naturally comes face to face with an evil electronic personification of his beloved Lady Lisa (Ashley Benson), but what happens next is eye-rolling even by this numb-nuts film’s standards. An inappropriately chatty Q*bert, presented to our heroes as a “trophy,” seems oddly benevolent, given that he (it?) is a typical (?) denizen of this marauding alien race.

And if you expect any answers, after the final climactic battle, forget it; Herlihy and Dowling don’t even try to wrap things up. The final half hour is simply a mess.

Sandler holds things together as well as possible, and his calm, decent-guy charisma is a welcome counterpoint to — as the most obvious example — Gad’s overly shrill, shrieking handling of Ludlow. Eddie’s vulgar tendencies are wholly out of place in this dumb but mostly good-natured fantasy, with Dinklage’s earthy dialogue solely responsible for the otherwise harmless script’s PG-13 elements. The character simply doesn’t work, nor can Dinklage save him.

Lintz, also refreshingly serene, shares several engaging scenes with Sandler. Jack Fulton gets a hearty laugh as a young British lad who uncorks a choice one-liner. Jane Krakowski is completely wasted as Cooper’s wife, and thus the U.S. First Lady; Lainie Kazan has an equally useless role as Ludlow’s grandmother. Serena Williams and Martha Stewart appears as themselves. (Don’t ask.)

And — could it really be? — yes, Matt Frewer gets another shot at his own bit of 1980s pop-culture glory.

I’m intrigued by this film’s proximity to 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, which also gave fresh life to characters from long-dormant games such as BurgerTime, Paperboy, Dig Dug and, yes, Q*bert. Indeed, little Q*bert is more easily recognized today, than he was three decades ago. Nostalgia sure takes us in strange directions.

A condensed and more intelligently scripted version of these events would have made a great 45-minute episode of the recent TV series Warehouse 13. But at more than twice that length, Columbus’ film loses its way — and its audience — long before its looney-tunes denouement. This is brain-dead, flashy Hollywood trash at its worst: every bit as mindless as the phosphor-dot spaceships that marched down the screen during a round of Space Invaders.

And not nearly as much fun.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Trainwreck: Not a total disaster

Trainwreck (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for strong sexual content, profanity, nudity and drug use

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.17.15

This film is impressively schizophrenic.

On the one hand, it’s as jaw-droppingly vulgar and tasteless as the average Melissa McCarthy fiasco ... which is to say, pretty much what one should expect from something directed and produced by Judd Apatow (The 40-Year Old Virgin, This Is 40, Bridesmaids).

Although Aaron (Bill Hader) has no experience with being interviewed, he's savvy enough
to know when somebody is blowing smoke up his skirt ... and that's definitely the case,
as Amy (Amy Schumer) feebly tries to persuade him that she knows stuff about sports.
Then again, some of the crude bits are wincingly hilarious.

On the third hand, the seemingly relentless profanity and potty-mouthed sexuality are intercut with moments of tenderness that are touching enough to prompt tears ... as was the case with numerous patrons at Tuesday evening’s preview screening.

In the grand Hollywood tradition, then, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll cringe ... although I rather doubt Trainwreck will change your life.

But it certainly does prove that Amy Schumer has arrived. And how.

Actually, she’s already been around for a little while, as fans of her TV series Inside Amy Schumer are well aware. Her shtick gets its momentum from the juxtaposition between her fresh-faced, doe-eyed, girl-next-door (seeming) innocence, and the breathtakingly blunt and appalling stuff that emerges from her mouth. The goal is shock value, with (she undoubtedly hopes) at least a few belly-laughs along the way.

Trainwreck may be helmed by Apatow, but the script comes solely from Schumer. It’s maladroit, to say the least, and — at 125 minutes — needlessly bloated and self-indulgent. And yet her storyline also possesses (at times) a sparkling sweetness that perfectly suits the gal-desperately-needing-redemption character she has written for herself.

Which is why this film resonates more than McCarthy’s big-screen vehicles, where it’s impossible to engage emotionally with any of the one-dimensional burlesques populating the screen. Schumer still has a lot to learn, when it comes to translating her stand-up routines to the demands of a two-hour narrative, but her big-screen writing debut here is, nonetheless, better than many.

She stars as Amy (not much imagination there), one of the staff writers at New York’s S’Nuff magazine, a slick, deliberately ghastly publication that exists solely to mortify, humiliate and otherwise offend anybody with mainstream sensibilities. Her editor, Dianna, is a superficial bee-yatch of astonishing heartlessness: a role delivered with spectacular cruelty by Tilda Swinton.

Ant-Man: A huge disappointment

Ant-Man (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for action violence and some rather nasty peril

By Derrick Bang

Well, it was inevitable: Mighty Marvel finally stumbled.

This film’s problems are numerous, but the largest issue is one of tone; director Peyton Reed, apparently adopting 1989’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids as his template, has emphasized slapstick sight gags and comic relief supporting characters to a point that pretty well destroys any of this story’s potential drama.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, center) listens attentively as Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) explains
the many hazards likely to be encountered during a clandestine assault on his own
company's research labs. For these reasons and many others, Hank's daughter, Hope
(Evangeline Lilly), believes Scott wholly wrong for the task.
The nadir is a climactic duel to the death between miniscule characters, which takes place within a child’s tabletop train set: a sequence that absolutely, positively doesn’t work on any level. And then, just to make a bad idea even worse, Reed punctuates this clash with an unexpectedly gigantic Thomas the Tank Engine, its enormous plastic eyes bouncing back and forth in dismay.

Just as mine were doing.

Reed’s sledge-hammer efforts at comedy are bothersome, but — in fairness — he can’t be blamed for trying to make the best of a bad situation. Ant-Man has been a troubled production for years, during a lengthy gestation in the hands of British writer/director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End, among others), whose sly, subversive brand of humor certainly would have been better than what we wound up with here.

But the project was ripped from his hands at the last moment, the script subsequently re-written by Adam McKay and star Paul Rudd. McKay is responsible for numerous Will Ferrell projects, notably Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and its sequel, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and this year’s Get Hard. I submit that Ferrell’s favorite scripter can’t, by definition, be right for anything taking place in Marvel’s ambitious film universe.

So: What were Marvel and Disney thinking?

Rudd’s meddlesome hand is equally evident. The star clearly shaped the script to fit the insufferable smugness that has become his go-to screen persona, rather than — as always should be the case — modulating his performance to suit the character’s needs. But the latter undoubtedly would require a level of acting beyond Rudd’s capabilities, and thus we’re stuck with his usual lackadaisical swanning from one scene to the next.

Rudd simply doesn’t seem to care about this character, or indeed the entire film. Ergo, why should we?

The core story follows the broad strokes established during several decades in the Marvel comic book universe, with genius scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) having perfected a process that allows him to shrink to ant-size, while maintaining his molecular density in order to (among other things) deliver full-strength punches. Along the way, he also developed the means to communicate with ants, and thus can command massive insect armies to help take out nefarious villains in his guise as Ant-Man.

But all that was years ago. Wary of the military applications contemplated by Howard Stark (John Slattery) and his weasel corporate associate Mitchell Carson (Martin Donovan, suitably smarmy), Pym retreats into seclusion. And since Ant-Man’s brief “career” remained under the public radar, the very notion of such a superhero has become little more than an urban myth.

Mr. Holmes: Far from elementary

Mr. Holmes (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for disturbing images and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

Some stage actors spend their entire careers hoping to play Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman. When it comes to great literary characters, however, the ne plus ultra appears to be Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen, left) is delighted when his housekeeper's young son,
Roger (Milo Parker), expresses interest in the great detective's beloved hives of honeybees.
The boy, in turn, senses that sharing this hobby will help his much older friend forget, if
only for brief times, the unpleasant frustrations of advancing age.
How else to explain the scores of individuals who’ve taken a crack at the world’s most famous consulting detective? When Guinness World Records honored Holmes as the most portrayed literary human character in film and TV, three years ago, he had been depicted 254 times by more than 75 actors.

That list now includes the venerable Ian McKellen, starring in director Bill Condon’s adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s 2005 Holmes pastiche, A Slight Trick of the Mind.

Arthur Conan Doyle purists may be dismayed by this handling of their beloved detective, for this is not the hard-charging rationalist depicted with authoritative panache by Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch and many others. McKellen instead gives us a frail, almost feeble Holmes, long removed from his illustrious career, vulnerable to the ravages of time, advanced age and self-doubt.

Condon’s film has an atmosphere of despondent finality about it: a tone similar to that employed by Richard Lester in 1976’s equally melancholy Robin and Marian, wherein Sean Connery’s exhausted and aging Robin Hood is poised at the similar precipice of mortality.

But even if this Holmes is a shadow of his former vigorous self, McKellen’s twinkling eyes and insightful gaze (at the detective’s better moments) remind us that the zealous pursuer of clues may be deeply buried within this dilapidated frame ... but he’s still there.

The time is 1947, and the 93-year-old Holmes is long retired, having moved to a quiet farmland home along the Sussex coast, in order to tend to his bees (as per Doyle’s projection of where the detective would wind up, late in life). Meals and other modest needs are handled by a live-in housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and her young son, Roger (Milo Parker).

Her husband, the boy’s father, was killed in the war.

Scripter Jeffrey Hatcher retains the structure of Cullin’s book, which cross-cuts between three narratives. The first and most extensive, set in the “present” of 1947, finds the increasingly lonely Holmes bonding with young Roger, who in turn admires the great detective as a father figure. Roger’s mother, all too aware of Holmes’ age, worries that this might not be advisable for a boy who already has lost his real father.