Sunday, May 24, 2015

Spike Island: Sweet rock 'n' roll

Spike Island (2012) • View trailer 
Four stars. Not rated, with profanity, sensuality and plenty of recreational drug use

By Derrick Bang

Director Mat Whitecross’ exhilarating indie, released three years ago but only now making its way on our side of the Atlantic, is a valentine to music fans of all ages, but particularly for those of us who — as teenagers — fell madly, passionately and hopelessly in love with One Special Album that ruled our lives, awake or asleep.

With the concert grounds tantalizingly close — but still unapproachable, thanks to high
fences and numerous guards — the situation seems hopeless for, from left, Little Gaz
(Adam Long), Zippy (Jordan Murphy), Tits (Elliot Tittensor) and Sally (Emilia Clarke).
It became a personal soundtrack to eating, studying and falling in love: the songs that we discussed and dissected endlessly and enthusiastically to like-minded friends.

Whitecross and scripter Chris Coghill haven’t merely depicted the obsessive zeal of such devotion; their film is constructed with an inventive, vibrant bounce that spills youthful bliss from every frame. In that context, Spike Island belongs in the company of like-minded, music-laden predecessors such as The Commitments, That Thing You Do and, more recently, Begin Again.

All that said, American viewers are warned to anticipate accents so thick that subtitles wouldn’t have been amiss. I know, intellectually, that all these characters are speaking English in this British production, but the working-class Manchester accent is thick enough to give the most impenetrable Irish brogue a run for its money.

Which is to say, much as I enjoyed this first exposure, the eventual home-viewing experience will be even more satisfying, when I can turn on the DVD’s closed captions.

Coghill’s story, set in Manchester during the spring of 1990, follows five rough ’n’ tumble teenage lads who — like many of their fellow “Madchesterians” — have succumbed to the eponymous debut album by The Stone Roses, released the summer before and still ruling the charts. Beloved in great part because the band members were Manchester natives themselves, the album touched a nerve in rock and punk fans already marginalized by recession, mass unemployment, class wars and the recent poll tax riots.

Rock-inflected movements come in many sizes. Although lacking the massive historical shift signaled by the 1960s British invasion, The Stone Roses definitely fueled a Manchester-based mini-revolution that brought a shimmering, jangling illusion of hope to a subset of Briton that felt helpless and beaten down.

Mind you, at first blush this story’s young heroes — Gary “Tits” Titchfield (Elliot Tittensor), Darren “Dodge” Howard (Nico Mirallegro), Chris “Zippy” Weeks (Jordan Murphy), “Little Gaz” Duffy (Adam Long) and “Penfold” Andrew Peach (Oliver Heald) — seem little more than hooligans. They’re introduced while laying waste to their school with multiple cans of paint: a shrill anarchic act inspired by The Stone Roses themselves. (Check the LP cover of the aforementioned album.)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Tomorrowland: An unsatisfying ride

Tomorrowland (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG, and a bit generously, for violence, dramatic intensity and sci-fi action

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.22.15

Nobody likes a lecture.

Disney’s Tomorrowland displays enough gee-whiz creativity and high-tech gloss for the next half-dozen films — and that’s a problem all by itself — but all the razzle-dazzle eventually boils down to A Message. A heartfelt and deeply necessary message, to be sure, but a disappointing anticlimax nonetheless.

Having penetrated the inner sanctum carefully guarded by the reclusive Frank Walker
(George Clooney), Casey (Britt Robertson) can't help wondering why he spends so much
time watching so many monitors.
I was reminded of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, with its mind-blowing dreams within dreams, all eventually leading to the inconsequential equivalent of Orson Welles’ Rosebud.

But whereas Citizen Kane built to that moment with well-established irony, Inception and Tomorrowland merely leave us with a vague sense of having been cheated. As in, Seriously? That’s what we’ve been building to?

With respect to the environmental undercurrent running throughout this new Disney release, 1971’s Silent Running made the same point far more profoundly — and effectively — without being so insufferably didactic.

But while the concluding let-down is indeed unsatisfying, Tomorrowland has a more glaring problem: a ludicrously overcooked script by too many chefs. Scripters Damon Lindelof, Jeff Jensen and Brad Bird (the latter also directing) can’t decide what type of movie they’re making — action epic, sci-fi comedy or cautionary tale — and subsequently fail at all three.

To be sure, the result is awesome to look at, with marvels a-plenty on the screen. But it’s almost as if Bird hopes to overwhelm us with the eye-popping imagery, as a means of concealing the story’s deficiencies and glaring plot holes. This is one of those scripts that doesn’t hold together during post-mortem scrutiny; you’ll exit the theater exchanging comments that begin with “Wait a minute...” and “But what about...” and, mostly, “Why did that happen?”

Why, indeed. Rarely has a surprise villain’s motive seemed so impenetrable, muddled and pointless.

All of which represents a heartbreaking result from the talented Bird, who until now could do no wrong. Few directors could boast of a consecutive record as strong as The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. But not even he could stitch all these disparate fabric squares into a pleasing quilt.

Such a shame.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd: Frequently maddening

Far from the Madding Crowd (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, and needlessly, for mild sensuality and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.15.15

This has been obvious for (literally) centuries, but it bears repeating: Thomas Hardy was no Jane Austen.

Although Bathsheba (Cary Mulligan) knows that Gabriel (Matthias Schoenaerts) loves her,
she's too independent and stubborn to acknowledge that she quite likely feels the same.
Sadly, such innocence in matters of the heart is about to make her vulnerable to another
potential suitor: one who's far less honorable.
Although Far from the Madding Crowd — his fourth novel, and the one that brought him fame — paints a lovingly descriptive portrait of the rolling, rugged countryside of 19th century Southwest England, with the inflexible class divide that we’ve come to expect from the period, Hardy fails utterly in his novel’s most important task: the creation of a sympathetic protagonist.

Director Thomas Vinterberg and star Carey Mulligan do their very best, in this newest film adaptation of Hardy’s novel. In appearance, spirit and resourcefulness, her handling of Bathsheba Everdene positively sparkles: an effervescent young woman who’d be the center of attention at any social gathering, warding off the advances of countless suitors.

Mulligan is adorable. Her radiant smile is granted additional intensity by a mischievous glint in her eyes, and her nose crinkles in a particularly endearing way when that smile blossoms into a delightful grin that hints at the promise of ... something.

But that’s the problem: Bathsheba is all coy suggestion, with no delivery. Her behavior is to be excused, in Hardy’s view, by her innocence; the parentless upbringing that fueled her pride and grit — and most particularly a determination to prove that a woman can go it alone, despite the era’s disparagement of single women — also left her clueless in kinder social graces such as diplomacy, tact and sensitivity.

By surface appearance, we can’t help admiring Bathsheba. By her actions ... well, that’s another matter indeed.

Part of the problem, of course, is the widening gap that separates our 21st century sensibilities from this novel’s 1874 publication date, with all that entailed. During the past 50 years in particular — since this book’s best-known 1967 adaptation by director John Schlesinger, with Julie Christie handling the title role — we’ve grown less tolerant of a 19th century male author’s clumsy attempt at a female protagonist, and far more impressed by Austen’s progressive 18th century creation of (to us) much more interesting heroines.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Hot Pursuit: Stone cold

Hot Pursuit (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, sexual candor, profanity and drug references

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.1.15

In the space of one short month at the end of last year, Reese Witherspoon starred in an inspirational drama about Sudanese refugees settling in Missouri (The Good Lie); collected a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for her persuasive portrayal of solo hiker Cheryl Strayed (Wild); and delivered a droll supporting performance as a snarky deputy district attorney in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s admittedly weird — but oddly compelling — handling of a notorious Thomas Pynchon novel (Inherent Vice).

Worried about their ability to remain on the down-low, given that every TV newscast has
been leading with their photographs, Daniella (Sofía Vergara, left) nonetheless assures
Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) that this particular sales clerk won't be staring at her face.
So ... what does Reese — a previous Oscar winner, let us not forget, for her memorable turn as June Carter, in Walk the Line — do for a follow-up?

Something rilly, rilly nifty, right?

If only.

I’ve no idea why high-caliber talents such as Witherspoon attach themselves to low-rent junk such as Hot Pursuit. There’s no way David Feeney and John Quaintance’s misbegotten script ever could have shown promise. Nor has it been dragged to life by director Anne Fletcher, which merely proves that the pudding was rancid to begin with; she did far better with previous comedies such as 27 Dresses, The Guilt Trip and most particularly The Proposal.

Fletcher clearly knows funny, and Witherspoon can do funny. So can co-star Sofía Vergara, as she has quite ably demonstrated during six seasons (and counting) of television’s Modern Family.

No, the blame here belongs solely to the numb-nuts script, which plays like a bottom-of-the-barrel television sitcom episode. No surprise there, since Feeney is a veteran of slapstick (but successful) TV work such as New Girl, According to Jim and 2 Broke Girls, while Quaintance has struggled with less successful rom-coms such as Perfect Couples, Whitney and Ben and Kate.

So if this big-screen gal-pal comedy looks, walks and quacks like a TV duck, there’s ample reason.

Mind you, I’ve no objection per se to dumb and aggressively loud TV comedies; I’ve laughed plenty hard during random episodes of New Girl. (2 Broke Girls ... not so much.) But there comes a point when it too frequently feels as if the stars in such material are trying to wring laughter from predictably stupid plots and dead-on-arrival one-liners.

That’s most definitely the case with Hot Pursuit.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron — Upping the ante

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for intense action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.1.15


Fans will be delighted, and it’s certain to make a fortune.

Writer/director Joss Whedon once again delivers a crowd-pleasing blend of thrills and snarky humor, along with enough quiet, character-driven moments to remind us that — in some cases, at least — we’re dealing with (to quote the Hulk) “puny humans” who, valiant spirit notwithstanding, wearily realize that they’re way outta their league.

During a welcome break from the fury of battle, the off-duty Avengers — from left, Bruce
Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.),
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) — try to determine what their
new robot adversary is up to.
And that, in a nutshell, is a fairly blatant problem with this second Marvel superhero mash-up. Avengers: Age of Ultron may have sidestepped the usual sophomore slump pitfalls, because Whedon is a highly skilled purveyor of action-oriented entertainment; this definitely isn’t a case of same old/same old.

But the sense of scale has climbed off the chart, and that is troublesome. By the time we reach this saga’s chaotic third act, we’re dealing with three new characters who appear able to level continents, not to mention an attack by hundreds of killer robots, urban renewal on a jaw-dropping scale, and a celestial, physics-defying scheme to plunge our entire planet into a new Ice Age.

It’s the familiar Superman problem, writ even larger: How do you concoct a threat sufficiently dire to give an invulnerable hero more than a moment’s pause? And once a threat of even greater magnitude does loom on the horizon, how can our champions endure?

Only by finding an even stronger ally, of course. And so forth, and so forth. Until we have to throw up our hands, admit that things have gotten totally silly, and go with the flow.

It’s a testament to Whedon’s considerable talent, that we are willing to go with that flow.

Credit his insistence on narrative subtext, not to mention note-perfect casting and performances that we’ve grown to love. Robert Downey Jr. remains the epitome of arrogant, condescending genius, although — as we’ve seen, in Iron Man’s most recent solocinematic outing — the emotional cracks are starting to show. Even so, he remains the master of the snide put-down, and his “public face” as Tony Stark has become difficult to endure.

In great contrast, Chris Evans stands tall as the icon of selfless virtue: a retro goodie-two-shoes whose Captain America would be jeered as a hopelessly old-fashioned throwback to so-called gentler times ... were it not for the utter sincerity with which Evans delivers even the corniest lines. We can’t help but smile, early on, when Captain American chides Iron Man about “language.” It’s a cute line, and it sets up an amusing running gag.

Chris Hemsworth radiates the regal bearing we’d expect of a Norse god, and his Thor similarly gets away with stilted “high speech” because Hemsworth retains the steely eyed gravity — and Shakespearean authority — that director Kenneth Branagh established in his first solo outing.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Sacramento Picture: History comes alive

The Sacramento Picture (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Not rated, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.26.15

Our digital age has unleashed countless miracles, and one of the best is the growing cornucopia of archival material that is becoming available to anybody with Internet access.

California Gov. Pat Brown, at the microphones, prepares to introduce presidential candidate
John F. Kennedy during the latter's whistle-stop visit to Sacramento in September 1960.
You can't see Kennedy in this image, although the president-to-be is standing directly
behind Brown, just inside the dark train car. (Photo courtesy of the Center for Sacramento
History)
Time was, researchers or curious civilians were limited to hard copies of vintage documents, audio recordings and newsreel footage stored on site, at locations with limited public hours ... if they offered visiting hours at all. If you lived in San Francisco and wanted to investigate something that existed only at some repository in San Diego, that represented a significant investment of time and expense. Not surprisingly, most folks simply wouldn’t bother.

Things are different today, with access to such materials no more difficult than firing up a laptop in your living room.

And, as a charming and informative new documentary amply demonstrates, you simply won’t believe what has become available.

The Sacramento Picture is written, directed and produced by Sacramento-area historian and film critic Matías Antonio Bombal, who also narrates (and has a talent for deliciously droll asides). Editing and post-production are by Chad E. Williams, and the two of them have assembled a lively 95-minute glimpse of what can be found at the Center for Sacramento History.

The film will screen one time only, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 29, at Sacramento’s Tower Theater. Tickets are modestly priced, and the experience is well worth the cost.

The Center, the larger regional history repository in California, has a mission to preserve and protect its collection, while also making its contents available to the general public. The material is slowly being digitized and made available via the web, thanks to the California Audiovisual Preservation Project, a joint effort between UC Berkeley and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Bombal’s film is an engaging blend of archival footage and on-camera commentary by folks such as historian William Burg, journalist Ginger Rutland and beloved former KCRA newsman Stan Atkinson, who provide context for the video sequences.

They’re quite a treat.

The oldest footage, dating back to 1910, reveals the scope of Sacramento’s then-quite enormous hops-growing industry. Another vintage clip, filmed on opening day (April 6) of the 1920 “Base-ball season” at Sacramento’s Buffalo Park, shows streetcars bringing throngs of fans to watch their beloved Sacramento Senators take on the visiting Seattle Indians.

Buffalo Park sat at the corner of Broadway and Riverside, where a Target store and parking lot are found today, just a few blocks from the Tower Theater.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Ex Machina: The perils of playing God

Ex Machina (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity, disturbing content, nudity and violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.24.15

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley would have loved this film.

Indeed, granted a time machine and access to today's technology, she likely would have made this film.

During one of the rare moments when he feels like showing off, Nathan (Oscar Isaac, left)
allows Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) into the lab where all of the "bits" were created, which
eventually came together as a disarmingly personable robot dubbed Ava.
At its core, writer/director Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is an absorbing update of Shelley’s Frankenstein: a 21st century cautionary tale about the limits of humanity’s hubris, and the unintended consequences of science outstripping ethics and morality. Midway through the first act, we can’t help recalling the wonderful sentiment that has been paraphrased in so many sci-fi B-movies: “There are things we are not meant to know” (which likely originated, appropriately enough, with a line of dialogue from 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein).

Garland’s film is thoughtful, methodical science-fiction: akin to Duncan Jones’ Moon, which made a well-deserved splash back in 2009. Like Moon, Garland’s narrative is an intimate character study that plays out in an isolated, claustrophobic setting. And, as with Moon, Garland’s storyline revolves around a core mystery that becomes increasingly disturbing as we move inexorably toward a chilling third act.

Along the way, we ponder questions relating to existence, consciousness and the nature of one’s soul: the big issues that always arise when contemplating the possibility of creating life. Heady stuff. But although Garland’s film is dialogue-heavy, it’s never boring ... in great part because production designer Mark Digby has crafted a fascinating, yet always persuasively believable setting for these events.

Not to mention the simultaneous creation of an amazing “subject” for what becomes an uncomfortably twisted psychological clash between two men.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an unremarkable programmer employed by a Google-esque Internet search giant dubbed Blue Book (deliberately named after philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s 1930s-era notes for his class on the philosophy of language). He’s delighted one day to discover that he has won a company-wide contest to spend a week with Blue Book’s brilliant, über-wealthy and reclusive founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac).

Nathan lives (mostly) alone in an imposing home/lab built into the remote heart of Alaska: reachable only by helicopter, and isolated from all of civilization’s trappings. Although uneasy from the moment he passes through the compound’s fortified front door, Caleb is too excited to worry about such things; he’s overcome by this opportunity of quality face time with a genius blend of Howard Hughes, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson.