Friday, July 25, 2014

A Most Wanted Man: Superb espionage drama

A Most Wanted Man (2014) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.25.14

John Le Carré continues to write gripping espionage thrillers, and he has the added bonus of seeing many of them translated intelligently to the big screen.

A Most Wanted Man is no exception.

Having brought naive young lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) into custody against
her will, German intelligence agent Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) patiently —
oh, so patiently — explains the folly of her recent behavior, in an effort to get her to reveal
information about the young man she believes needs her help.
This compelling adaptation is helmed by Dutch director Anton Corbijn, who first came to our attention back in 2010 with his disappointing handling of The American, an adaptation of Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman. In fairness, that film’s failure had more to do with its dull, dreary script and a miscast George Clooney’s soulless performance, along with the fact that it was difficult to sympathize with a career assassin possessing few redeeming qualities.

Corbijn obviously learned a lot from that experience, because A Most Wanted Man boasts everything that his previous thriller lacked. For starters, le Carré’s riveting plot is ripped from contemporary headlines and fueled by the moral dilemma that troubles all progressive Western countries: Can we justify subverting established law in the pursuit of terrorists who refuse to “play fair”?

Le Carré’s densely complex novel has been compressed ingeniously by scripter Andrew Bovell, who deftly stripped away an entire set of supporting players (the British) in order to amplify the German setting and characters, primarily the veteran black-ops surveillance agent who has become the heart of this narrative.

That would be Gunther Bachmann, played to ferocious perfection by Philip Seymour Hoffman: the last film he completed before his tragic and untimely death.

To say that Hoffman’s performance is mesmerizing would be gross understatement; the man owns the screen, and this film. The forever disheveled Bachmann is a study in contrasts: a beady-eyed, chain-smoking, whisky-drinking fox who flouts established authority and couldn’t care less about currying favor, and yet possesses investigative skills that cannot be dismissed, even by colleagues and superiors who loathe him.

Hoffman has for quite some time transcended the artifice of performance; he’s one of very few film actors who doesn’t merely “play” a part, but instead fully inhabits the role of moment. That’s particularly true here, where we quickly cease to see Hoffman and instead watch, fascinated, as Gunther Bachmann embraces the sacred trust placed in his hands: to make the world a safer place.

That’s a key line: Watch Hoffman’s body language, and his expression, when he is given the opportunity to toss it back at the individual who first says it to him. Rarely will you see such an impeccably crafted blend of amusement, irony and barely controlled fury.

Lucy: An evolutionary leap in cinematic swill

Lucy (2014) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for strong violence, dramatic intensity and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang

Goodness, what an abomination.

This ghastly excuse for a movie blends the worst elements of spring’s Transcendence and the loopy “Star Gate” sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the “creation of the universe” nonsense from Tree of Life tossed in, for no particular reason.

Her senses heightened by a powerful designer drug, Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) finds that
she can "see" lines that represent cell phone conversations; she therefore sorts through
them until finding a key chat between the thugs waiting to ambush her.
And you thought this was a standard-issue revenge thriller? Think again.

French filmmaker Luc Besson is a one-man movie machine, with more than 100 titles to his credit during the past three decades: most as producer, but also quite a few as writer and/or director. He’s best known for helming high-octane action epics such as La Femme Nikita and The Professional, and he also created Jason Statham’s enormously popular Transporter series.

Besson’s hits have made pots of money, which have allowed him the luxury of self-indulgent vanity projects such as Angel-A and the children’s series that began with Arthur and the Invisibles. To put it kindly, such efforts have done little to burnish his reputation.

Lucy may tarnish it for several years. Not even the promise of three more Transporter entries is likely to compensate for this jaw-dropping example of pointless, wretched excess.

Besson directed and takes sole writing credit on this mess, so he deserves all the blame. And although Universal’s marketing strategy suggests a Nikita-esque thriller with Scarlett Johansson as the wronged, hard-charging protagonist, that’s a serious mishandling of this film’s actual nature.

Veteran filmgoers will feel nervous from the moments the lights dim, as we watch a CGI representation of ... cells dividing.

Say what?

Next up: a short prehistoric visit with AL 288-1, the female Australopithecus afarensis dubbed “Lucy” by anthropologists wise enough to recognize the value of shorter headlines.

Say what what?

After which, finally, we launch into what feels like familiar thriller territory, with an on-the-move introduction to Lucy (Johansson), a carefree American student livin’ la vida loca in Taiwan. At the moment, though, she’s wisely resisting a request by recent hook-up Richard (Pilou Asbaek) to deliver a briefcase to unknown parties at a posh hotel. Alas, Lucy’s self-preservational instincts aren’t fast enough to prevent Richard from handcuffing the case to her wrist.

And So It Goes: And so it went

And So It Goes (2014) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, for sexual candor and drug content

By Derrick Bang


This feels like a Reader’s Digest Condensed Movie. And not a very good one.

Although blessed with occasional charm and a fair number of well-delivered verbal zingers, And So It Goes is destined for instant oblivion. The premise is strictly TV sitcom lite, the delivery by the numbers, the outcome completely predictable.

When Oren (Michael Douglas) gets saddled with a granddaughter he didn't even know
existed, he asks next-door neighbor Leah (Diane Keaton) to watch the girl. For an
unspecified period of time. Which Leah improbably agrees to do, despite having very little
use for Oren. Which makes about as much sense as anything else in this dim-bulb flick.
In one respect, this gentle rom-com is a breath of fresh air: a (mostly) family-friendly affair designed for older viewers who will appreciate seeing pros such as Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton and Frances Sternhagen do what they do best. By simple virtue of offering an alternative to summer’s noisy, vacuous popcorn flicks, this film should enjoy a reasonable opening weekend.

After that, sadly, word of mouth will bury it completely.

I simply cannot believe that this clumsy mess comes from director Rob Reiner and scripter Mark Andrus. The former has a string of hits going back to Stand By Me, The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally; the latter earned a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for co-scripting 1997’s As Good As It Gets, and then went on to write 2001’s marvelous Life As a House.

Point being, both Reiner and Andrus excel at whimsical, multi-character dramedies with a bit of bite; it’s their bread and butter. So what they heck went wrong this time?

And So It Goes is suspiciously short, at 94 minutes, which suggests the sort of eleventh-hour tampering that might explain some sub-plots that pop up and then just sorta vanish. But that doesn’t excuse a few of Andrus’ hammer-handed narrative hiccups, most particularly a sidebar so glaringly unpleasant that it feels yanked in from some other movie: a true what-the-heck-were-they-thinking moment.

Our central character is Oren Little (Douglas), an irascible crank who nonetheless is the most successful Realtor in a bucolic Connecticut lakefront community: the sort of place where the rich have more money than God. Oren probably belongs in their company, but — following his wife’s recent death, from cancer — he has chosen to reside in a cramped multi-apartment unit dubbed Little Shangri-La. He shares this building with adjacent first-floor neighbor Leah (Keaton) and two upstairs tenants.

All of whom regard him as a grouch and a pain in the keister, an image Oren does nothing to discourage.

Once upon a time, Oren might have been a nice guy, but spending two years watching his wife die drained all of his finer qualities. Now he’s just one big commission away from being able to retire, and he can’t wait to leave. Which seems odd on the surface, because he’d also be abandoning his wife’s grave site, which he visits frequently.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Third Person: Provocative points of view

Third Person (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, nudity and sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.18.14


Writer/director Paul Haggis’ film is too long, too self-indulgent and often too precious.

That said, it’s also intriguing, mysterious, and oddly compelling. And, to a degree, there’s a reason for the many contrivances. Whether the “ultimate answer” justifies the prolonged journey, however, will be up to the taste — and tolerance — of the individual viewer.

Monika (Moran Atias) angrily refuses to share a hotel room with Scott (Adrien Body), and
accusing him of "the obvious" motivations; she chooses instead to make the best of a
bench at the railway station. Of course, this just amplifies Scott's protective instincts, so
he follows and winds up keeping her company for the entire night.
Haggis is a seasoned writer, having cut his teeth on various TV dramas before leaping to the big screen with several high-profile assignments with Clint Eastwood: Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima and most particularly Million Dollar Baby, the latter two garnering Oscar nominations. Haggis also helped revive the James Bond franchise by collaborating on the gritty scripts for Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.

Most notably, though, Haggis is known for taking home twin Academy Awards for 2004’s Crash, a victory that remains controversial to this day. Some Best Picture Oscar winners are universally embraced; others divide movie buffs into polarized camps. Crash belongs to the latter group, its interlinked storylines alternately praised as insightful social commentary or ridiculed as puerile left-wing twaddle.

Third Person is an equally personal film that employs a similar template of seemingly disconnected narratives that slide in and around each other. The crossovers aren’t as direct as those in, say, Babel, Love Actually or even Crash; sometimes it’s no more than two people passing each other in a hotel hallway, Haggis’ camera using that excuse to shift quietly from one point of view to the other.

Except that there is more going on here, as we eventually discover.

Perhaps sensitive to the warring camps he created with Crash, Haggis avoids even a whiff of political content this time, focusing instead on interpersonal relationships and issues of trust. All the characters here are in various stages of flirtation, love or rejection, their behavior determined by anger, frustration and impatience.

And by hope. Hope for understanding; hope that things will get better; hope that past transgressions can be surmounted, catalogued and forgiven.

Julia (Mila Kunis) can’t get her life together, much to the vexation of her attorney, Theresa (Maria Bello). Forever between jobs and frequently down to pocket change, Julia nonetheless hopes to regain visitation rights with the 6-year-old son living full-time with his father Rick (James Franco), a famed New York artist, and his girlfriend Sam (Loan Chabanol). We’ve no idea what Julia did, to be shunned so thoroughly by her ex; her flakiness alone doesn’t seem sufficient cause for such total banishment.

Sex Tape: A limp noodle

Sex Tape (2014) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for nudity, strong sexual content, drug use and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang

Homemade porn (so I’ve been told) tends to reflect the amateur skills of its makers: jittery camerawork, clumsy editing, terrible performances and — needless to say — no plot.

Ironic, then, that a so-called Hollywood comedy about this phenomenon should mimic all these shortcomings.

Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Jason Segel) discover that, contrary to her original request,
their rather enthusiastic sex tape remained on his master computer, from where it then
migrated to several other tablets in the possession of various friends and family members.
Worse yet, one of those individuals is threatening to post the film to the Internet...
Sex Tape arises from a premise with plenty of potential, to give scripters Kate Angelo, Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller at least that much credit. Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Segel), during their younger years relentless pursuers of recreational sex, have found that their mutual passion has chilled after 10 years of marriage and two children.

Hoping to re-ignite the flame — and with common sense dulled by too many tequila shots — they park the kids with grandma and film themselves performing every single maneuver in Alex Comfort’s groundbreaking 1972 manual, The Joy of Sex.

In a single three-hour session.

That seems ambitious, given that Comfort’s book is large and rather inventive. But we’ll let that slide.

Mission accomplished, Annie instructs Jay to erase the film (unseen? really?), but of course the amiable lunk forgets. Cue the rumble of ominous drums.

In a rather blatant example of cinematic product placement, Jay — who works in the music biz — traditionally gifts friends with old iPads, when he upgrades to newer models. But the tablets are only part of this generous act; they’re also equipped with copies of the impressive music library he has built over the years.

You know what’s coming: Thanks to Jay’s ill-advised use of an aggressive cloning app, their sex film winds up on every recently donated iPad. The recipients include Annie’s mother, the mailman, best friends Robby and Tess (Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper), and — most damningly — Hank Rosenbaum (Rob Lowe), CEO of the wholesome multinational toy company Piper Brothers, which has made a lucrative financial offer to sponsor Annie’s “modern mommy” blog.

Assuming she maintains appropriate family values, of course.

(I can’t help wondering if the scripters deliberately riffed on the controversy that erupted back in the early 1970s, when Ivory Snow model Marilyn Chambers — who posed with a baby beneath the tag line “99 & 44/100% pure” — became a porn star with the release of Behind the Green Door. Needless to say, Procter & Gamble dropped her like a hot coal.)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: A parable for our era

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for intense sci-fi violence and action, and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.11.14

Given the long list of entries on the Hollywood odds-makers’ tote boards, the chances of a second cycle of Apes movies must’ve been the darkest of horses.

Malcolm (Jason Clarke, foreground) tries to forge an uneasy alliance with, from left, Caesar
(motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis), Koba (Toby Kebbell) and Maurice (Karin
Konoval), none of whom have much reason to trust humans.
And yet here we are, four decades later, three films into another incarnation of Pierre Boulle’s seminal sci-fi novel, re-shaped for a new global order.

If the original five films — from 1968’s Planet of the Apes to 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes — felt like a thinly disguised commentary on the American civil rights struggle, this new series clearly speaks to the sadly intransient warfare between Israel and Palestine, or Shiite and Sunni, or any of half a dozen other sectarian-driven hot spots throughout the world.

And, as often is true of parables, there’s little comfort to be derived from this fantasy-laden depiction of such conflict. Some battles seem doomed to continue for eternity, despite the best efforts of noble heroes on both sides.

Tim Burton probably didn’t have such high-falutin’ notions in mind, when he remade the original Planet of the Apes in 2001. No doubt that’s why 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes adopted a fresh approach, with director Rypert Wyatt and scripters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver telling a thoughtful story about the desperate — and foolish — measures that can be prompted by grief. (One hopes the impetuous scientist given a template in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein remains mostly a figure of cautionary fable, lest we foolish mortals get ourselves into even more serious trouble.)

Jaffa and Silver have returned for this sequel (threequel?), with a scripting assist from Mark Bomback, while Matt Reeves takes over the director’s chair. The result isn’t quite as relentlessly heartbreaking as was the case with Rise, nor does this new film play the human-beings-are-cruel-thugs card quite as often (for which I’m grateful).

That said, matters have moved in the grim direction foretold by the previous film’s cliffhanger conclusion, with a highly contagious (and woefully misnamed) “simian flu” wiping out all but a few scattered remnants of humanity. The ape colony founded in Northern California’s Muir Woods by Caesar, the previous film’s chimpanzee hero, has thrived; the hyper-intelligent chimps, gorillas and orangutans have built a vibrant community devoted to the democratic notion that all apes are to be cherished as equals.

And they’ve wondered, as numerous winters have passed, if human beings have wiped themselves out completely.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Begin Again: A melody-laden charmer

Begin Again (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.4.14

It’s a bit rough around the edges at first, the approach uncertain, the artist perhaps nervous and worried about looking foolish.

A needless concern.

With Dan (Mark Ruffalo, far right) acting as an on-the-fly director, Greta (Keira Knightley)
performs one of her songs in a New York City alley, accompanied by several talented
instrumentalists, and watched by a gaggle of neighborhood children.
I could be discussing the first song we see performed by Greta (Keira Knightley), reluctantly and a bit shyly, in front of an indifferent bar crowd. But I’m actually talking about this film itself: Perhaps writer/director John Carney is that clever, to have mirrored Greta’s stumbling debut before the public eye, with our reaction to the manner in which her story unfolds.

Because, in both cases, the talent involved can’t help but win us over.

Begin Again is the newest offering from the Irish filmmaker who charmed us so thoroughly with the saga of a Dublin busker in 2006’s Once, a film cherished just as much for its music — and that marvelous, Academy Award-winning song, “Falling Slowly” —  as for the gently romantic manner in which its story unfolded.

Carney’s new film once again revolves around music, but the setting and tone are both different and somewhat grittier. This narrative has a villain, but it’s an entity rather than an individual: the music industry, depicted as the instrument by which pure expression is quashed, either benignly or overtly. Remaining true to one’s dreams, passions and (reasonable) expectations is the ideal here: a goal too easily corrupted, as we shall see, by outside forces conscious only of the bottom line.

Those who adore New York for its cornucopia of emotions and experiences will delight in Carney’s rapturous depiction: a Big Apple we’ve not seen idolized so passionately since Woody Allen’s Manhattan, back in 1979. This is a New York of joyous romance, much like the Paris of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie: the city as we imagine it, based on cinematic valentines like this one.

The story opens in the aforementioned East Village bar, as the unwilling Greta is dragged to the stage for one song: a brief musical interlude noticed by nobody except Dan (Mark Ruffalo), whose presence — in that bar, at that moment — is explained during the first of Carney’s clever flashbacks. Dan, once a lauded record label exec, has fallen on hard times prompted by a crisis in his personal life; the result is growing friction with his longtime partner, Saul (Mos Def), which climaxes in yet another humiliation.

Dan also drinks too much, and has been doing so for too long. But his radar remains unimpaired: He’s drawn, moth to flame, by this hesitant performance by a British singer/songwriter who’d rather be anywhere else.