Friday, April 11, 2014

Draft Day: Quite a fumble

Draft Day (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.11.14

I’ve no doubt that a compelling film could be spun from the suspense, acrimony, dashed hopes and back-room negotiating that lead up to the annual NFL draft, but scripters Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman didn’t find it.

With his job and the fate of his team hanging in the balance, Sonny (Kevin Costner,
center) debates the merits of a potential draft choice with league "capologist" Ali
(Jennifer Garner). Their discussion includes numerous pregnant pauses because,
well, Sonny and Ali also are An Item, and she's, well, pregnant. Just the sort of detail
one would expect from a football league war room, right?
Nor did director Ivan Reitman, who can’t seem to decide whether he’s making a mild farce or a straight drama. No surprise, since Reitman remains best known for his 1980s triple-play of Stripes, Ghostbusters and Twins. He’s not done so well of late, with a string of forgettable junk that includes Evolution and My Super Ex-Girlfriend.

But sports drama? Not even close. Reitman’s most mature and subtly pleasing effort remains 1993’s Dave, which owes its juice to Gary Ross’ superlative script and Kevin Kline’s sublime starring performance.

Draft Day has neither. Kevin Costner tries his best with this flimsy material, but his limited thespic range isn’t up to the subtlety demanded by his role. It’s pretty bad when we can’t tell the difference between Costner looking happy, looking worried or looking irritated. It’s all the same bland expression.

Comparisons to Moneyball are inevitable, since both films deal with the fine points of building a winning sports franchise. But that’s where the comparison ends; Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian wrote a genius script for Moneyball — working from a story by Stan Chervin, and a book by Michael Lewis — and the result was mesmerizing drama that drew much of its power from the clever way we were inserted into the action. Most crucially, Moneyball never talked down to its audience.

Rothman and Joseph, in great contrast, assume that we’re blithering idiots; their screenplay gracelessly spoon-feeds details in a way that becomes quite tiresome. (This project unbelievably topped Hollywood’s 2012 “Black List” of best unproduced scripts.) As we initially visit each of the football franchises involved with this story, a text card gives us the city, in bold type (CLEVELAND!), followed by a second card that identifies the team with the sort of breathless emphasis associated with screaming tabloid headlines (Home of the BROWNS!).

Actually, that’s not Reitman’s worst stylistic offense. He and cinematographer Eric Steelberg obviously adore their horizontal cross-fades, with one image sliding across the screen to intersect with another, sometimes allowing a foreground figure to “intrude” into the neighboring scene. It’s a slick trick, visually ... the first time. And the second. Maybe even the third.

By the 50th time, however, we’re well and truly sick of it. Camera gimmicks of this nature only succeed when they’re a) instrumental to the story; and b) employed sparingly. The finest example remains Haskell Wexler’s use of split screens in 1968’s original Thomas Crown Affair, a pinnacle seldom achieved since then. Steelberg’s technique here does absolutely nothing to advance the story; he’s merely showing off.

Rio 2: Back to the jungle

Rio 2 (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated G, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang

Next to co-founder Chris Wedge, writer/director Carlos Saldanha clearly is one of Blue Sky Studios’ most treasured assets.

Jewel, center, feels right at home in the Amazon jungle; her mate Blu, left, is reasonably
secure, as long as he's got his cherish GPS device. Their music-loving daughter, Carla,
couldn't care less ... until she discovers that the jungle birds have their own wonderfully
vibrant approach to samba and bossa nova.
After sharing credit with Wedge on 2002’s Ice Age and 2005’s Robots, Saldanha soloed on the second Ice Age entry, shared credit once again on the third installment, and somehow found time for a couple of hilarious shorts featuring the acorn-challenged Scrat.

All the while, the Brazilian-born Saldanha must’ve been building up to his own pet project: 2011’s Rio, a thoroughly enchanting, bird’s-eye-view valentine to the city of Carnival, samba and a culture every bit as colorful as the film's eye-catching avian stars. In addition to being clever, witty and suspenseful — not to mention serving as an anchor for a gloriously celebratory soundtrack — that film’s script also worked in a mildly subversive, conservation-oriented subtext regarding the heinous black market trade in exotic birds and animals.

Saldanha kept all those plates spinning with the élan of a vaudeville pro. I was impressed three years ago, and equally captivated when I caught up with the film a second time last week, in anticipation of the subject at hand.

To cut to the chase, then, Rio 2 isn’t quite as fresh as its predecessor, but it's still quite entertaining. That said, I miss the greater involvement of Sergio Mendes. Although he returns once again as executive music producer, it’s to a noticeably lesser degree; nothing in this sequel matches the first film’s breathtaking paragliding scene, which took place against an updated rendition of the joyous Brasil ’66 hit, “Mas Que Nada.”

The songs and score in this sequel function more as they would in a stage musical — as story hooks to advance the plot — as opposed to augmenting the overall atmosphere with the rich, seductive sounds of samba and bossa nova. That’s an artistic modification, and not necessarily a bad one; I lament it only because there’s no shortage of animated musicals (I’m looking at you, Frozen), whereas Saldanha and Mendes were more creative and original with their use of songs in the first Rio.

A minor issue, granted, but it does affect this sequel’s tone.

Events pick up a bit after the first film’s conclusion, with our nerdy hero Blu (once again voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) enjoying domestic bliss with his mate, Jewel (Anne Hathaway) and their three offspring: Carla (Rachel Crow), Bia (Amandla Stenberg) and Tiago (Pierce Gagnon). They’re comfortably situated at the Rio de Janeiro animal sanctuary run by Blu’s BFF Linda (Leslie Mann) and Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro), newlyweds themselves, and partners in wildlife rescue and preservation.

While releasing one of their winged patients into the wild, Linda and Tulio spot a familiar cerulean feather: certain evidence that other blue macaws exist in this part of the Amazon. This is marvelous, breathtaking news, since Blu and Jewel were thought to be the last of their kind.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Captain America — The Winter Soldier: Another Marvel-ous hit!

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for intense action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.4.14

This one’s a lot more thought-provoking that I was expecting.

Confronting an enemy strong enough to catch his shield — and hurl it back, with deadly
force — Captain America (Chris Evans) and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson)
consider their rapidly dwindling options. Much as they hate to admit it, retreat might be
the better part of valor...
It’s safe to acknowledge, after so many rip-snorting predecessors involving so many characters — whether individually, or in groups — that Marvel Studios has the formula down to a science. Captain America’s second solo outing once more offers a welcome blend of familiar faces, superbly choreographed action scenes and just enough witty banter to prevent things from getting too grim.

Rest assured: No sophomore slump here.

And, yes, Marvel’s production team continues to navigate the all-essential fine line: offering insider nods to fans who’ve read these comic books for decades, while nonetheless ensuring that newcomers won’t be left out. That’s a remarkable feat by itself; still more impressive is the degree to which all of these films, this one included, continue to build on an ever-expanding tapestry that now includes a weekly TV series.

All well and good, and guaranteed to result in a crowd-pleasing popcorn flick.

But scripters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely make this film much more than a popcorn flick, thanks to a deeply unsettling plot that’s ripped from today’s paranoia-laden headlines. It’s a very clever touch, because Cap — Steve Rogers — is precisely the right character to confront this crisis.

It’s not easy, in our increasingly cynical times, to work with a character whose moral compass feels too good to be true. Putting such an individual on the big screen is even more difficult, demanding a perfect marriage of talent and material. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was just such an iconic good guy: a genuinely virtuous hero who could speak of “truth, justice and the American way” without prompting snickers from the audience.

Chris Evans makes Steve Rogers just as true-blue, with just the right balance between old-fashioned ethics and resourceful savvy. We must recall that he’s a man out of time: a World War II hero who — in his previous film — sacrificed himself for what he believed would be certain death, but instead wound up in suspended animation, revived decades later in our modern era.

Fish-out-of-water stories, when done correctly, can’t help being entertaining. Markus, McFeely and co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo do it correctly.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Sabotage: Vicious, vulgar trash

Sabotage (2014) • View trailer 
No stars (turkey). Rating: Rated R, for strong bloody violence and gore, relentless profanity, nudity, drug use and sexuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.28.14

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Our rough 'n' tumble "heroes" — from left, Neck (Josh Holloway), Breacher (Arnold
Schwarzenegger), Pyro (Max Martini) and Tripod (Kevin Vance) — infiltrate a drug cartel
safe house, taking down all opposition while cracking wise. Because real DEA agents
behave like this all the time, donchaknow.
Once upon a time, in the 1980s and early ’90s, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger vied for the crown of box-office action champ: the former riding the momentum of his Rocky and Rambo franchises; the latter embracing a string of solid sci-fi/fantasy entries such as Conan the Barbarian, Predator and — needless to say — The Terminator.

Now they’re in a race to the bottom.

I was astonished — and saddened — when Stallone popped up about a year ago, in the loathsome Bullet to the Head. Exiting that bit of distasteful junk, I couldn’t imagine any (former) big-name star doing worse.

Color me surprised, because along comes Schwarzenegger and this repugnant turkey.

Back in the day, you’d have had to stay up late on a Friday night — at home — to see this sort of grade-Z shoot-’em-up on Cinemax. No self-respecting actor would have signed on for such grindhouse trash, and no self-respecting studio would have dared release such a thing theatrically.

My, how times have changed.

Sabotage isn’t merely offensively, viciously, gratuitously violent; it’s also stupid beyond measure.

Director David Ayer has made a minor splash with gritty urban thrillers such as Harsh Times and Street Kings — don’t feel bad, if they escaped your notice — but his primary Hollywood rep results from his impressive one-two punch as a writer, in 2001: collaborating on The Fast and the Furious, and as sole scripter on Training Day, which brought Denzel Washington an Academy Award.

Based on his subsequent career, Ayer has been chasing the belief that amorality for its own sake is what sells in these United States. Why bother with plot or character, when one can wallow in the sleaze of ghastly depravity?

He has teamed here with co-writer Skip Woods, who also made some noise in 2001, with the stylishly nasty Swordfish, and more recently got involved with glossy action junk such as The A-Team and A Good Day to Die Hard. Nothing to brag about, to be sure, but also nothing to be ashamed of. Until now.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Grandly chaotic

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: Rated R, for profanity, sexual candor and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.21.14

This one’s hard to categorize.

On the one hand, and perhaps most visibly, Wes Anderson’s newest opus is a madcap farce populated by eccentric and oddly polite characters who hearken back to those found within West London’s famed Ealing Studios comedies, during the late 1940s and early ’50s.

With the police hot on their heels, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, left) and his faithful
junior lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), frantically try to figure out where to hide a
priceless Renaissance painting that they have, ah, liberated.
On the other hand, it’s a droll send-up of Agatha Christie mysteries, with suspicious butlers, nosy maids and assorted other shady and avaricious characters, all of them anxious about the contents of a will that keeps throwing up codicils, riders, supplements, postscripts and assorted other appendices, possibly even superseded by the second copy of a second will.

On the third hand, it’s an affectionate ode to an era of more civilized behavior, when traveling strangers regaled each other with fascinating tall tales while enjoying a sumptuous meal; and when courting lovers exchanged passionate letters.

Then, too, there’s an affectionate nod to Inception, with its nested narratives.

And, last but certainly not least, however we choose to define this unapologetically zany melodrama, it most certainly could have come only from the eccentric imagination of director Wes Anderson ... and perhaps that’s the only explanation that matters.

Anderson’s films take place within a fanciful universe of his creation: one slightly off-center from our own, with occasionally familiar cultural landmarks that merely add to the gently bizarre atmosphere, laced with characters who deliver crucial soliloquies and peculiar non-sequitors with equal aplomb, and always with resolutely straight faces.

No character ever laughs at something said by another; at best, the speaker might get a raised eyebrow that Signifies A Great Deal.

In short, Anderson’s films are strange. Very strange, and definitely an acquired taste. I generally swing toward admiration, but not always; his previous outing, Moonrise Kingdom, is a thorough delight ... but I almost couldn’t make it through The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

This one falls somewhere in between, leaning more heavily toward the wacky delights of Moonrise Kingdom. Anderson has concocted the script with co-conspirator Hugo Guinness, claiming inspiration from pre-code 1930s Hollywood comedies and the stories and memoirs of Viennese author Stefan Zweig (!).

Avid film fans with a fondness for old-style filmmaking technique likely will have a ball. Mainstream viewers who casually wander into the theater will be convinced, after only 15 minutes, that the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

And, to be fair, they won’t be wrong.

Divergent: Solid sci-fi teen melodrama

Divergent (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for action, violence, dramatic intensity and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang

Veronica Roth’s fans should be pleased.

Scripters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor have done an impressive job, condensing the author’s debut novel for its big-screen adaptation; it’s not easy fitting 487 pages into a 139-minute film. Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) also deserves credit for guiding a solid cast through a deft blend of character angst and action set-pieces.

As a night of capture-the-flag war games commences, Tris (Shailene Woodley) climbs
an abandoned Ferris wheel in order to secure a superior vantage point, while Four
(Theo James) trails behind. Tris has a lot to prove, having disobeyed orders to join
this late-evening exercise.
Divergent is a polished, well-executed sci-fi melodrama that should have no trouble tapping into the fan base that has devoured the adventures of Harry Potter, Bella Swan and Katniss Everdeen.

Indeed, I deem this first cinematic installment of Roth’s trilogy noticeably superior to the first big-screen chapters of the Twilight and Hunger Games series; Daugherty and Taylor are far better at establishing back-story, and laying the groundwork for the gradually building suspense. By the same token, Roth’s cynical, cautionary take on human nature seems more probable than the gladiatorial nonsense at the heart of Hunger Games, which I’ve always found a rather unlikely pill to swallow.

But the dissolution of a so-called utopian society, due to the greed of one faction? Goodness, we know that to be psychologically sound, and it’s even happening today, in this country; we need look no further than the unchecked avarice of our current one percent.

Casting also plays a significant role, of course, and Divergent also satisfies in that respect. The core young actors are well suited to their respective roles, with star-on-the-rise Shailene Woodley admirably anchoring the narrative.

The story is set in an unspecified future, following some sort of war or cataclysm that has rendered much of the United States uninhabitable (so we’re told). What’s left of the city of Chicago has been re-built into a working civilization that is divided into five factions: Abnegation, for kind, selfless souls who place society above their own interests; Amity, for the peaceful farmers who work the land; Candor, occupied by those who value honesty above all else; Dauntless, the warrior caste that maintains peace and defends the city’s perimeter; and Erudite, for the intelligent researchers who develop and maintain all technological advances.

Upon reaching their 16th birthday, all children take an unusual “aptitude” test, to determine which faction best suits them. Those results aside, they’re allowed to select any faction during the subsequent “Choosing Day.” While most children adhere to the faction of their birth, Choosing Day always delivers a few surprises.

And, once having made this decision, it’s irrevocable. Even if young adults decide that they’re unsuited to their enclave of choice, they cannot change; at best, they can become “factionless” (i.e. homeless street-dwellers).

If this sounds a bit like Harry Potter’s sorting hat and Hogwarts’ four houses ... well, yes, that’s obvious. But Roth’s take on this process is far more intriguing from a psychological standpoint, since it revolves around the struggle between aptitude and free will.

Bad Words: D-I-S-A-P-P-O-I-N-T-I-N-G

Bad Words (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: R, for relentless profanity and crude language, sexual content and brief nudity

By Derrick Bang

While not the total train wreck that its pleading, seemingly anxious social media publicity campaign might suggest, this little flick also isn’t much to write home about.

An unexpected act of kindness by young Chaitanya (the utterly adorable Rohan Chand)
prompts a smile from the curmudgeonly Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), who until this
moment hasn't displayed anything close to a sympathetic bone in his nasty body.
Somehow, though, the sight of Guy looking cheerful is even scarier...
First-time scripter Andrew Dodge definitely wants the Bad Santa vibe, and at times he comes close ... but that dark-dark-dark 2003 comedy was an inspired blend of talent (Billy Bob Thornton) and superior material: a perfect marriage that Dodge too frequently fails to consummate with this film’s Jason Bateman, who both stars and makes his big-screen directing debut.

I’ve never understood Bateman’s appeal. As with Paul Rudd — another over-valued and under-talented, so-called comic player — Bateman swans his way through every role with condescending indifference, as if wanting to ensure that we all understand the big favor he’s doing us, merely by appearing on the screen. It’s an irritating affectation, as far removed from actual acting as a singer lip-synched by somebody off-stage.

But I digress.

Goodness knows, it’s long past time to satirize the rarefied, hyper-competitive world of children’s spelling bees. Given that Jeffrey Blitz’s marvelous documentary — Spellbound — came out more than a decade ago, some sort of comedic riff should have followed within a few years. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for waiting, since Bad Words has the good fortune to ride the serendipitous publicity of the jaw-dropping competition at this year’s Jackson County Spelling Bee, held just a few weeks ago, when the event finale had to be postponed after the remaining two contestants went 66 rounds without breaking their stand-off ... because the organizers ran out of words (!).

Bad Words never quite gets the mix right, however. Humiliating children via edgy humor is a dicey prospect, requiring a razor’s-edge awareness that going too far risks alienating one’s audience. Ultimately, Bateman and Dodge don’t skewer spelling bees with near the wit or snarky panache that, say, director Michael Ritchie and scripter Jerry Belson brought to 1975’s Smile, their dead-on assault on teenage beauty pageants.

I’ll say this for Bad Words, though: All concerned don’t waste any time. At an economical 88 minutes, this unsettling comedy never becomes tedious.

Trouble is, it never quite achieves glory, either.

Bateman stars as Guy Trilby, a smug misanthrope introduced as he crashes a regional qualifier for the prestigious Golden Quill National Spelling Bee. Trilby gets away with this scheme by exploiting a hiccup in the official rules; he never completed eighth grade, and therefore remains eligible ... despite being 40.