Friday, July 3, 2015

Terminator Genisys: Out of time

Terminator Genisys (2015) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for relentless sci-fi violence and gunplay, partial nudity and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.3.15

Not since the original five-cycle Planet of the Apes films, between 1968 and ’73, has a franchise attempted to cycle itself so intricately. Terminator scripters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier deserve credit for an ambitious attempt here, tackling multiple time periods — and alternate timeline realities — in an effort to slot this newest entry into What Has Gone Before, while also (more or less) re-telling the whole wild ’n’ crazy story from the beginning.

Surrounded by an impressive cache of military weaponry they'll never get to use, our
heroes — from left, Sarah (Emilia Clarke), "Pops" (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Kyle (Jai
Courtney) — concoct a half-baked scheme to destroy an evil master computer complex
before it can wreak havoc on the entire world.
Sadly — and as often is the case, with sloppy time travel sagas — things get so convoluted that the result becomes confusing and, ultimately, pointless. The situation clearly has gotten out of hand when characters spend the entire third act explaining each new twist to each other (and, by extension, to us). Rarely has a film indulged in so much blatant, tedious said-bookism.

Part of the problem is the labyrinthine degree to which this franchise has been expanded (often not for the better) by outside parties, most notably extended story arcs by six different comic book publishers, dating back to 1988. No single new film could satisfy a mythos that has grown so convoluted.

On top of which, director Alan Taylor has absolutely no sense of pacing. He simply yanks his cast from one deafening CGI action scene to the next, with no attempt to build suspense or inject any sense of actual drama. The result is massive, messy and noisy: a 125-minute cartoon that has none of the heart — or intelligence — that made director James Cameron’s first two films so memorable, back in 1984 and ’91.

This is simply a pinball machine, with its little spheres — our heroes — whacked and bounced from one crazed menace to another, somehow (miraculously!) surviving each encounter, physical laws and human frailty be damned.

That said, this new big-screen Terminator chapter — the fifth — does have one secret weapon: the same bright, shining star who also highlighted Cameron’s entries: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Far from the over-the-hill relic that many fans may have feared, the big guy owns this film. He’s well employed, granted some droll one-liners and sight gags, and has solid camera presence.

On top of which, Kalogridis and Lussier come up with a genuinely clever explanation for why Schwarzenegger’s good-guy T-800 android has aged so much, since its first appearance in 1991.

So ... take a deep breath, and pay attention. Ready?

Friday, June 26, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: A celebration of life and love

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, occasional coarse language and fleeting drug content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.26.15

Little movies, absent shrieking publicity campaigns, have the potential to become unexpected treasures ... and this is one of the best I’ve seen in awhile.

After dryly dispensing another nugget of bewildering, utterly useless "advice," Greg's
father (Nick Offerman, center) offers his newest culinary nightmare — pig's feet — to
Greg (Thomas Mann, right) and Earl (RJ Cyler)
Every generation gets its share of heartfelt dramas purporting to reflect the high school experience; some become classics, embraced by their target audiences due to a savvy blend of snarky wit and often uncomfortable intimacy. The modern cycle probably began with Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Breakfast Club, while more recent examples include Juno, Rocket Science and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s touching rendition of Jesse Andrews’ impressive writing debut — the Salinger-esque young adult novel, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl — belongs in their company. With the leaders of the pack.

Andrews has adapted his own book here, and it’s hard to know where to begin, with respect to the film’s many highlights. The casting is excellent, from the spot-on main characters to the off-center adults orbiting around them: the latter a droll touch, since teens always believe that adults inhabit an entirely different universe.

The dialogue is sharp and well delivered, the mordant, angst-ridden tone a painful reminder of high school disenfranchisement. This is also one of very few films to make excellent use of its main character’s off-camera commentary: reflections and asides — complete with narrative subtitles — that genuinely advance the storyline, as opposed to merely re-stating the obvious.

My favorite bit, though, has to be Andrews’ scathing, drop-dead-perfect description of high school’s clique-ish nature, as explained by the morose Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), a quiet, withdrawn kid who has made an art of navigating the social minefield by remaining as anonymous as possible. I couldn’t begin to do justice to Greg’s dissection of his school’s various factions, and paragraphs would be wasted in a failed attempt.

Besides which, that would spoil your delight upon hearing this discerning, mocking analysis from Greg’s own lips.

Max: A fairly good dog

Max (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, and quite generously, despite brutal behavior and considerable peril

By Derrick Bang

To quote the Joni Mitchell song, Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got, ’til it’s gone.

Case in point: Whatever happened to real-world, family-friendly adventure films?

A boy and his dog: The bond takes awhile to establish, but once Justin (Josh Wiggins) and
Max learn to trust each other, they're inseparable. Which is a good thing, because events
in Justin's neighborhood are about to get rather nasty...
By which I mean, films that a) aren’t animated; and b) don’t involve witchcraft, fantasy or science-fiction. In other words, stories that could — theoretically — happen to the rambunctious kids who live a few doors away.

Once upon a time, such efforts were a Hollywood genre staple. Early Disney live-action dramas perfected the formula: Consider the French slum children who foil a bank robbery, in 1963’s The Horse Without a Head; or the kidnappers who meet their match in a love-struck teenager (Hayley Mills), an FBI agent who’s allergic to cats (Dean Jones) and a wandering Siamese tomcat, in 1965’s That Darn Cat. (Don’t waste your time with the dreadful 1997 remake.)

Earlier still, avid fans thrilled to the adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Lassie and their various youthful companions. Nor should we overlook plucky little Benji, who saved two kidnapped children in his 1974 movie debut. (Sadly, Benji’s various sequels weren’t nearly as satisfying.)

Of late, though, such films haven’t merely become endangered; they’re all but extinct. I can’t think of one more recent than director Danny Boyle’s larkish Millions, and its saga of a 7-year-old British lad who stumbles onto a heist taking place just as the Euro is about to become the coin of the realm. And that was back in 2004.

All of which makes Max a welcome relief from the spell-wielding teens, post-apocalyptic heroines and animated toys/animals/robots/fairies that invariably get summoned when parents look at their moppets and say, “Okay, what shall we watch tonight?”

Director Boaz Yakin deserves credit for trying to revive a moribund genre, and he chose wisely with respect to the military service dog at the heart of this (mostly) engaging tale. At its best, Max is heartwarming, suspenseful and just amusing enough.

But Yakin and co-scripter Sheldon Lettich never quite get the tone right. Their script is clumsy and occasionally sloppy about details; their two-legged protagonist spends too much time being an unforgivably obnoxious little toad; and the general level of peril is way over the top for their film’s generous PG rating. Nasty, gun-toting weapons smugglers and the Mexican Mafia? Seriously? Whatever happened to bungling bank robbers?

Ted 2: Insufficiently stuffed

Ted 2 (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for drug use, crude and sexual content, and pervasive profanity

By Derrick Bang

Let’s cut to the chase.

Films like this are critic-proof. If you enjoyed Ted — if the notion of a foul-mouthed, substance-abusing stuffed bear hit your sweet spot — then you’ll certainly enjoy this sequel just as much. Perhaps even more so.

En route to New York, in hopes of getting some desperately needed legal assistance,
John (Mark Wahlberg), Ted and Samantha (Amanda Seyfried) playfully bicker about who
gets to drive next. Naturally, Ted wants his turn behind the wheel...
But if equal-opportunity race-, gender- and religion-baiting profanity and vulgarity are apt to send you into a froth, prompting letters to your Congressperson regarding the dangerous decline of Western civilization ... better steer clear.

Hey, I thought 2012’s Ted was a giggle. At times. The same is true of this one. That said, both films suffer from the malady that often afflicted Monty Python’s big-screen efforts: the tendency to exploit a joke that’s amusing the first time, by beating it to death. Most potty humor does not become funnier through repeated exposure.

At 106 minutes, Ted was at least half an hour too long. At 115 minutes, this sequel is at least 45 minutes too long.

It’s simply impossible to shake the feeling — in both cases — that an admittedly hilarious Saturday Night Live sketch has been stretched way beyond its ability to amuse.

Still, creator/director/co-scripter Seth MacFarlane deserves credit for fitful attempts to stretch the envelope. This new film’s Busby Berkeley-style opening credits are quite a surprise, well deserving the special credit given First Assistant Director David Sardi. (I suspect, however, that those who show up for Ted’s profanity-laced tirades will be bored by these credits, despite their choreographed opulence.)

A few surprise guest stars are cleverly used, notably Jay Leno and Liam Neeson, both of whom obviously have a healthy sense of humor. Michael Dorn does some very cute stuff with his longtime Star Trek persona. Sam Jones also returns, playing himself and still capitalizing on his long-ago stint as Flash Gordon. Always a funny bit.

And — wait, could it really be true? — the script actually flirts with honest-to-God social relevance. MacFarlane and co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild paint with awfully broad strokes, but they definitely score a few provocative jabs at discrimination issues. That’s unexpected, given the delivery system’s overall tone.

On top of which, I never tire of visual effects supervisor Blair Clark’s impressive work. It’s one thing to fabricate imaginary creatures on distant planets or alternate-universe fantasy realms: quite something else to so seamlessly integrate an 18-inch stuffed bear into our own workaday world. Hey, I’ll buy into the premise: Ted is real.

He simply isn’t somebody with whom I wish to spend so much time.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Inside Out: An animated masterpiece

Inside Out (2015) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated G, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.19.15

Sheer genius.

After stalling a bit in recent years, Pixar has reclaimed its throne of brilliance, thanks to the impressively imaginative Inside Out, one of the most entertaining and ingenious metaphors ever brought to the big screen.

Joy, right, is horrified to discover that a mere touch from Sadness can transform a yellow
sphere — representing a happy memory — into one of sorrow. What will this do to the
long-term memories carefully stored within their host little girl's mind?
Mind you, it’s not that Cars 2, Monsters University and Brave were bad films; far from it. But they were disappointing nonetheless: the first two driven more by merchandising and less by a heartfelt reason to continue their storylines, as was realized far better by the Toy Story trilogy. More to the point, all three recent films lacked the inspirational, outside-the-box snap, crackle and pop that has characterized so many of Pixar’s efforts.

It’s their own fault, really: Set the bar high, and fans arrive with expectations.

All of which are met, and then some, by the wonderful Inside Out. By turns exhilarating, wildly euphoric and poignant, this modern-day fairy tale offers perceptive insight into how (and why) we deal with love, happiness, family ties, crushing disappointments and all sorts of routine daily successes and failures, along with a rather droll suggestion of what might be happening when our lives feel “out of balance.”

Director Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc. and Up) concocted a strikingly savvy premise, then shaped it into a thoroughly engaging script with co-writers Josh Cooley and Meg LeFauve. In a way, it’s the Monsters, Inc. concept writ much larger: Instead of merely establishing a reason for nightmares, Docter & Co. have built an entire fantastical explanation for all human behavior.

In short, we’re governed by an uneasy alliance between five key emotions — Joy, Fear, Anger, Sadness and Disgust — which take turns operating  a complex control center within our minds. Too much of any one emotion results in instability, manifested in the outer “real” world by bewildering (to others) behavior.

But it’s much, much deeper than that, as gradually revealed in the charming saga of  Riley, whom we first meet as a gurgling infant born to her delighted mother (voiced by Diane Lane) and father (Kyle MacLachlan). As she’s delivered into the world, Riley’s mind receives its first emotion: Joy (Amy Poehler), awestruck by what she sees “through” her infant host’s eyes.

Joy is further surprised by the creation and immediate storage of the baby’s first memory, wrapped in a protective, bowling ball-sized soft yellow sphere: the color of Joy herself.

But infant frustration quickly follows, cueing the arrival of Anger (Lewis Black); he’s soon joined by Fear (Bill Hader), Sadness (Phyllis Smith) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Over time, as Riley (now voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) grows into a rambunctious adolescent — encouraged to do so by her doting parents — her myriad memory spheres are predominantly yellow ... because what is childhood, if not a period of great joy?

But matters are destined to get more complicated.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Jurassic World: Dino-might

Jurassic World (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for intense sci-fi violence and peril

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.12.15

We never learn.

Which is a good thing ... because, otherwise, where would Hollywood find most of its plotlines?

Having managed one narrow escape after another, our besieged heroes — from left,
Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), Owen (Chris Pratt), Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray
(Ty Simpkins) — wind up trapped in a lab when yet another dino-menace appears out
of nowhere. These poor folks just can't catch a break...
In a few key respects, Jurassic World is an honorable sequel to the sensational 1993 film that Steven Spielberg made from Michael Crichton’s riveting, way-clever novel ... not to mention Spielberg’s almost-as-good 1997 follow-up, adapted from Crichton’s own sequel. (Equal credit also goes to scripter David Koepp, who worked on both films.)

We’ll just sorta pretend that the series’ third entry, in 2001, never happened.

Which also seems to be the attitude adopted by this new film’s director, Colin Trevorrow, and his three co-writers: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Derek Connelly. Jurassic World does acknowledge the first two films with several nice nods toward those who sculpted this franchise so superbly. Even Michael Giacchino’s exhilarating score references key John Williams themes from the two Spielberg movies.

Visual effects supervisors Tim Alexander and Glen McIntosh also do phenomenal work, further enhancing the “you are there” verisimilitude that made the first film such a jaw-dropping wonder. It’s no imaginative stretch at all, to accept these various beasties as living, breathing ... and highly dangerous.

Trevorrow and editor Kevin Stitt concoct a hell-for-leather third act, with each suspenseful encounter and/or chase building to an even better one. Additionally, the script is laden with perceptive social commentary, taking some well-deserved jabs at our jaded 21st sensibilities, while reminding us anew that — to paraphrase a droll 1970s TV commercial — it’s not nice to mess with Mother Nature.

Sounds great, right?

Well ... not entirely.

Despite its many virtues, Jurassic World is marred by an abundance of unpleasant, mean-spirited and just plain stupid characters who spend the entire film behaving like complete idiots. On top of which, Trevorrow seems to have coached everybody to play at hyper-melodramatic, back row/third balcony opera house levels.

That’s frankly surprising, since Trevorrow’s sole previous credit is 2012’s droll Safety Not Guaranteed, a little sci-fi mystery that gets its oomph from being so deliciously coy, subtle and quiet.

So why switch gears here? Did Trevorrow worry that his human players had to compete with their dino co-stars, when it came to chewing up the scenery?

Whatever the reason, it’s hard to like or admire most of these characters, including the few whom we’re definitely supposed to root for. Brainless behavior demands the opposite; I’d have been perfectly content to watch a few more become dino-chow.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Love & Mercy: God only knows

Love & Mercy (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, profanity and drug use

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.5.15

Brian Wilson’s life story is fascinating enough on its own merits, with enough drama, betrayal and crisis to fuel a lengthy and thoroughly fascinating TV miniseries.

During one of her first encounters with Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, left), during a
seemingly benign afternoon barbecue, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) is about to discover
just how cruel this celebrity psychotherapist can be toward Brian Wilson (John Cusack).
That said, director Bill Pohlad and scripters Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner deserve credit for the intriguing manner in which they’ve chosen to depict these events, in an engaging, economical two-hour film that charts the exuberant highs and heartbreaking lows of a musical genius who truly suffered for his art.

Rather than giving this tale an old-fashioned monaural spin, Pohlad and his writers have opted for a brighter, dual-track stereo treatment, with two actors playing Wilson during the strikingly distinct points of his life.

Paul Dano is spot-on as the cheerfully round-faced 1960s-era Brian, who married teenage sweetheart Marilyn Rovell and spearheaded the enormously popular pop/rock band that released an astonishing 10 albums in four short years. John Cusack, in turn, is equally compelling as the heartbreakingly subdued 1980s-era Brian, initially in thrall to control-freak celebrity psychotherapist Eugene Landy (a truly scary Paul Giamatti).

Artistically, this two-tone portrayal makes perfect sense; Brian became an entirely different person when, during the making of the albums “Pet Sounds” and “Smile,” he succumbed to artistic pressure, drug abuse and (probably) legitimate manic-depressive schizoaffective disorders. No surprise, then, that Pohlad should depict the musician’s before-and-after personas with different actors.

This gimmick isn’t new. Director Tim Fywell guided Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino through the pre- and post-fame guises of Marilyn Monroe, in 1996’s intriguing “Norma Jean & Marilyn.” Not to be outdone, director Todd Haynes employed half a dozen actors — the most intriguing of whom was Cate Blanchett — to depict various aspects of Bob Dylan’s soul, in 2007’s “I’m Not There.”

Stunt casting for its own sake can be an eye-rolling distraction, of course, but the result is entirely different when the project warrants such treatment. In this case, Pohlad’s finished film is by turns fascinating, informative, tender and distressing; I’ve no doubt he and editor Dino Jons├Ąter fretted over every frame, and the timing of every sequence, with the same care that Wilson brought to his later albums.

Pohlad cross-cuts between the parallel storylines, enhancing our fascination by bouncing skillfully to the other time stream each time we settle into a given chapter. That can be jarring, even unsettling, but it also mirrors the increasing chaos into which Brian’s life descends.