Friday, April 18, 2014

Transcendence: A whole new level of tedium

Transcendence (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action and violence, brief profanity and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.18.14

The White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass may have been able to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast, but smart screenwriters limit themselves to one.

Expecting her former colleagues to be amazed, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) shows Joseph
(Morgan Freeman) and Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) through the massive underground
complex that has been built to her deceased husband's specifications ... via his
AI avatar, who watches closely from a series of computer monitors.
Meaning, viewers generally are willing to stretch credibility and accommodate one massive leap of faith per movie. Transcendence kicks off with an intriguing premise and rather quickly unveils its fanciful notion. Fair enough: We buy it, for the sake of the impending drama.

But first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen doesn’t know when to quit. He piles absurdity atop contrivance, then gets sloppy with logic, basic human nature and socio-political behavior. By the third act, you’ll lose track of the glaring plot-holes.

Newbie director Wally Pfister doesn’t do much to improve the situation; in fact, he makes it worse. While he deserves credit for drawing compelling performances from his stars, Pfister also succumbs to the weakness suffered by most cinematographers who insist on helming a movie: too much reliance on arty scene compositions and camera shots, and a smothering atmosphere of Great Significance.

Pfister is best known as director Christopher Nolan’s visual amanuensis: the cameraman behind The Prestige, the Batman trilogy and most particularly Inception, for which Pfister won an Academy Award. He has given Transcendence the same labored, walking-through-glue self-importance that made Inception such a chore to watch.

Every scene seems to carry an invisible subtitle: “This is really cool, and very important, so pay close attention.”

Yawn. Wake me when it’s over.

And, as is the case with many first-time scripters, Paglen’s so-called “original” narrative begs, borrows and steals from many other, better sources. Avid sci-fi buffs will recognize strong elements from films such as 1970’s Colossus: The Forbin Project and 1974’s Phase IV, and books such as Greg Bear’s Blood Music and Michael Crichton’s Prey.

Finally, on top of all their other sins, Paglen and Pfister open their film in the aftermath of horrific events — thus ruining the suspense they quite easily could have built — and then flash back five years, to show us how everything went to hell. That’s an irritating cliché these days, and one that makes sense only if it later turns out that assumptions derived from said prologue are inaccurate, as a result of a clever twist.

No clever twists here. Just a long, slow descent into sci-fi silliness.

Dom Hemingway: For whom the belle tolls

Dom Hemingway (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for nudity, sexual content, violence, drug use and pervasive profanity

By Derrick Bang

We’ve recently been blessed with a couple of show-stopping soliloquies.

Fresh out of prison, Dom (Jude Law, left) cheerfully follows longtime friend and criminal
colleague Dickie (Richard E. Grant) on a trip to the South of France, where Dom fully
expects to be rewarded — very generously — for keeping his mouth shut during a
12-year stretch.
Matthew McConaughey’s coked-out stock-whisperer scene, as he describes the concept behind fugazi to a still-naïve Leonardo DiCaprio, is by far the best part of the otherwise bloated Wolf of Wall Street. It’s acting genius on McConaughey’s part; he’s positively electrifying.

The same can be said of Jude Law’s opening monologue in Dom Hemingway, as he waxes rhapsodic about the most cherished part of his male anatomy. It’s a jaw-dropping introduction to this film’s title character, with Law going on an on and on, never pausing for breath, in a single dynamite take for cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who just lets the camera roll. Law builds to a ferocity that would have riveted 16th century, standing-room patrons at the Globe Theatre ... although, it must be admitted, the profanity present in this lust-laden oration would have scorched the earth for miles around.

Law builds to a furious, fulminating, saliva-laden climax — in more ways than one — and leaves us utterly breathless.

I’d love to say the rest of writer/director Richard Shepard’s film lives up to this prologue. Sadly, not the case.

Although he’d been busy for well over a decade earlier, Shepard came to everybody’s attention with 2005’s The Matador, a marvelously stylish crime noir comedy. Shepard’s cheeky script notwithstanding, that film got much of its juice from the way star Pierce Brosnan — normally regarded as refined, genteel and immaculately turned out — went down and dirty as a world-weary assassin for hire.

Brosnan’s scruffy stomp through a hotel lobby, clad only in his skivvies, may have been that year’s best single movie scene.

Shepard clearly tries for the same vibe with Dom Hemingway, but his unfocused script can’t settle on a particular mood. Although the narrative could be considered a journey toward redemption by a career criminal who regards himself as the world’s best safe-cracker, the tone shifts wildly from real-world tension and lethal danger, to family melodrama, and even the heightened fantasyland of magic realism.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Raid 2: Upping the ante

The Raid 2 (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for strong, bloody violence, gore, profanity and occasional nudity

By Derrick Bang

With 2011’s The Raid, writer/director Gareth Evans was just flexing his muscles.

Anticipation is everything: Our hero, Rama (Iko Uwais, left) endures considerable
punishment before his climactic confrontation with an opponent known only as
The Assassin (Cecep Arif Rahman), but the wait is justified. Director Gareth Evans
unleashes a battle royale that must be seen to be believed.
Having now released a sequel, Evans’ master plan has become clear: He’s going for an underworld crime epic that’s the martial arts equivalent of Sergio Leone’s 1984 masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in America.

Evans is nothing if not ambitious, and he delivers. The Raid 2 is a bravura display of action mayhem, delivered with superbly choreographed panache and layered with enough simmering sub-plots to keep this narrative percolating not only through this sequel’s 150 minutes, but well into the already planned next installment.

Evans has the additional benefit of the ideal acting collaborator in Iko Uwais, who wears his tortured nobility like a shield. Uwais’ Rama is the superlative hero: Jakarta’s last and best honest cop, whose trial by repeated fire pushes him to horrific extremes not merely to save his life, but — far more importantly — also his soul.

We’re dealing here with crime fiction’s ultimate moral imperative: Is it possible for a good man to remain pure, while doing the dirty work required to combat evil?

Tormented angst is well and good; it’s always nice to identify with our protagonist. But Evans also knows how to please the martial arts fans who’ve hungered for an audacious, densely layered follow-up to Quentin Tarantino’s two-part Kill Bill epic. Rest assured, The Raid 2 satisfies that itch, and then some.

This new film’s narrative kicks off seconds after the events in the previous film, which left Rama’s rookie cop the lone survivor of a special-forces assault on a 15-story slum building laden with thugs taking orders from their brutal boss on the top floor.

Unfortunately, bad as that guy was, he was merely a mid-sized predator in a much larger food chain. If Rama is hailed as a hero, he and his family will be executed as a warning to other potentially honest cops with virtuous notions. Instead, Rama’s boss — clandestinely doing his best to root out departmental corruption — concocts a dangerous plan that begins with the very public announcement that the aforementioned raid left no survivors.

Rama is given a new identity as a low-level thug named Yuda, who establishes his rep by beating up a local politician’s son and getting tossed into prison. Once incarcerated, our hero must figure out a way to cozy up to Uco (Arifin Putra), son of Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo), one of the two Jakarta criminal kingpins who’ve ruled the city via a mutual truce that has lasted for years.

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 cherished 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.