Friday, August 17, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians: Rom-com by way of wretched excess

Crazy Rich Asians (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for suggestive content and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.17.18

Cross-cultural interpersonal friction has terrific potential in film comedies; the challenge is to ensure that the humor is warm and genuinely funny, without being demeaning or racist.

Rachel (Constance Wu, far right) is charmed when her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding)
introduces her to his grandmother, Ah Ma (Lisa Lu, center), while other members of
his wealthy and privileged family watch warily.
My Big, Fat Greek Wedding successfully walked that delicate line, back in 2002; director Jon M. Chu has navigated the same potentially treacherous waters with equal care, in his adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 best-seller, Crazy Rich Asians.

This is even more impressive, given Chu’s résumé, which up to now has focused on the Step Up dance franchise and bombastic popcorn flicks such as G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Now You See Me 2. I wouldn’t have thought him capable of the prudent handling required by this droll rom-com.

He and scripters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim also give generous screen time to an impressive roster of supporting characters, all of whom get numerous opportunities to shine. That reflects good directing and writing; far too many ensemble projects focus exclusively on the name stars, shamefully leaving equally (if not more) intriguing co-stars twisting in the wind.

Chiarelli and Lim have done an equally impressive job of compressing the novel’s multiple points of view — the story is told, in alternating chapters, by five key characters — into a single narrative. Chu then transformed the saga into a strongly visual experience, particularly with respect to travel maps and inventive displays of chat-by-text: clever touches that obviously couldn’t have been done in print.

All this said, I’m not sure Kwan’s fans will approve. Although the key elements of boorish behavior have been retained — Chu deftly blends hilarious bits with moments that are quite painful — the film is a much kinder, gentler handling of the core plot, which (in the novel) is far more vicious and brutal.

Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a professor of economics at New York University, is delighted when longtime boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) invites her to tag along for his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. Unfortunately, Nick has neglected to mention that he’s the scion of one of the country’s wealthiest and most powerful families; perhaps even worse, back home he’s a sought-after bachelor still regarded as “fair game” by the aristocratic young women who mingle in his family’s refined social circle.

All of whom regard lower-middle-class Rachel as an insignificant threat, to be quickly disposed of.

(In Nick’s defense, as he later explains, he found it refreshing that Rachel fell in love with him without knowing his privileged background ... and he simply never got around to ’fessing up.)

Mile 22: Breaks down

Mile 22 (2018) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for strong violence and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang

This flick certainly doesn’t lack ambition.

That’s no compliment. Director Peter Berg’s newest collaboration with star Mark Wahlberg isn’t anywhere near as successful as their other efforts — Patriots DayDeepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor — because they’re stuck with a script that is both overwrought and ludicrously over-plotted. Writers Lea Carpenter and Graham Roland obviously wanted to concoct a devious, twist-laden, politically hued action thriller, but they tried much, much too hard.

Having arranged to drive Noor (Iko Uwais, right) to a transport plane that'll fly him to the
safety of the United States, Silva (Mark Wahlberg) has no idea how dangerous the
22-mile trip is about to become.
The result is a mess, in terms of both narrative structure and execution. 

I’ve learned, over time, to be wary of films that begin in one of two ways: during a patient conference in a psychiatrist’s office; or during any sort of after-the-fact de-briefing. It’s a clumsy plot device that ruins suspense, often deceives viewers, and becomes increasingly frustrating — as in this case — when the director keeps interrupting the as-it’s-happening action, to cut back to the post-mortem.

No doubt Carpenter and Roland expected this gimmick to pique our curiosity: What is Wahlberg’s James Silva going on about? Doesn’t work that way. It’s just annoying.

Actually, Silva himself is annoying. Very annoying. Wahlberg apparently wanted a role with more than the stable, true-blue, baseball-and-apple-pie, real-life heroes he tackled in his earlier projects with Berg; James Silva is the result. He’s a capable assassin and senior field officer assigned to a CIA tactical command group known as Overwatch: the guy you definitely want handling a sensitive and/or dangerous operation.

He’s also an insufferable pain in the ass: a hyper-focused “spectrum baby” just this side of being bi-polar. He’s impatient, imperious, insubordinate, oblivious to social cues, and unwilling to suffer anybody gladly, whether fools or long-time colleagues. Wahlberg throws far too much twitch into the performance; five minutes into the film, it’s impossible to believe that Silva wouldn’t have been dismissed, decommissioned (with prejudice), jailed or flat-out terminated years ago.

But no: We’re expected to believe that Silva’s team — and his superiors — tolerate the rudeness, gruffness, nasty sarcasm and unpredictability because, y’know, he always gets results. Uh-huh.

We see an early example of this during a tense prologue, as Silva and his comrades infiltrate an American-based Russian safe house. The off-the-books goals: break up the operation, capture and identify the participants, and seize the intel. Things go violently awry, and Overwatch head Bishop (John Malkovich) — monitoring the operation via computer surveillance, from a distant command center — orders all the Russians killed.

“You’re making a mistake,” warns the final victim, as Silva coldly executes him.

Alpha: A bit of a mutt

Alpha (2018) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

This is a lovely notion for a story, but the execution leaves something to be desired.

Actually, I’m not certain it can be rendered successfully as a film. Director Albert Hughes and scripter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt certainly put heart and soul into their effort, but the result is slow, occasionally lifeless and frequently — distractingly — contrived.

Separated from their respective companions, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his unlikely
ally increasingly rely on each other, while attempting to survive prehistoric Europe's
dangerous environment.
At the risk of sounding like a killjoy, the very premise is flawed. While it’s romantic to consider the notion of a hyper-intelligent “first dog” that allowed itself to be fully domesticated some 20,000 years in our past, in truth it likely took many, many generations of (accidental?) wolf breeding before something approximating humanity’s best friend finally emerged.

But that wouldn’t be nearly as enticing during a studio story pitch.

Alpha belongs to the small but intriguing sub-genre of “protagonist(s) against the elements” films that are largely — or completely — bereft of dialogue. Its predecessors include 1981’s Quest for Fire, 1986’s adaptation of Clan of the Cave Bear and the pack’s stand-out classic, 1988’s The Bear. The latter’s director, Jean-Jacques Annaud — who also helmed Quest for Fire — has a strong artistic, visual and dramatic sense that keeps viewers breathlessly hooked.

Which Hughes can’t do, and no surprise; his résumé, working in tandem with brother Allen, focuses on grim, often socially conscious action thrillers such as Menace II SocietyDead PresidentsFrom Hell and The Book of Eli. He hasn’t the faintest idea how to handle something requiring the careful, delicate touch that Alpha demands. I kept lamenting how far superior this film would have been, in Annaud’s hands.

Hughes’ insecurity manifests immediately: He opens with a pointless flash-forward to one of the film’s most catastrophically suspenseful moments, freezes the climactic image, leaves us hanging (literally), then backs up to begin the story chronologically. One can’t help feeling that he worried about losing his audience, during a lengthy first act that (frankly) wastes a lot of time setting the stage.

Or perhaps that decision was thrust upon Hughes by nervous execs at Studio 8 (the production company) or Columbia Pictures (the distributor). Regardless, it’s an irritating cheat that bodes ill for the rest of the film.

We’re introduced to a small clan of Cro-Magnon tool-makers toward the end of Europe’s Mesolithic period. These are civilized people, with rituals, a language, primitive weapons, family hierarchies and an understanding that survival depends on working together, with everybody contributing. The tribe is led by Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), stern and strong, and proud that his 17-year-old son, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), has just come of age. 

For the first time, Keda will join the men on their dangerous trek to locate the massive herds of steppe bison that populate very distant grasslands: an annual hunt required to supply the food that will get the clan through the subsequent harsh winter.

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Meg: Waterlogged

The Meg (2018) • View trailer 
1.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, profanity, bloody violence and fleeting gore

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.10.18

Those with a fondness for 1960s TV shows will recall that director/producer Irwin Allen was responsible for several of the most laughably atrocious sci-fi shows ever unleashed on the small screen: Lost in SpaceLand of the Giants and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Having successfully "tagged" the megalodon with a homing device, and now able to track
it, our plucky monster hunters — from left, Mac (Cliff Curtis), Jonas (Jason Statham),
Jaxx (Ruby Rose), Suyin (Bingbing Li), Lori (Jessica McNamee), DJ (Page Kennedy)
and little Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai) — wonder what to do next.
This movie plays like a standard-issue Voyage episode with delusions of A-list grandeur: same ludicrous script; same wafer-thin, cardboard characters; same inane dialog; same jarringly inappropriate attempts at humor. We even get nods to key elements from the Irwin Allen playbook: a sleek underwater craft that looks strikingly like the Voyage flying sub; and a precocious kid who seems far more intelligent than most of the nearby adults.

(With no offense intended to Billy Mumy, Shuya Sophia Cai’s Meiying is a lot cuter than Will Robinson on his best day.)

And when director Jon Turteltaub and his three writers — Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber — aren’t mimicking Voyage, they’re ripping off Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Same underwater-whatzit-towing-a-floating-platform shot. Same ocean-bound jump scares. (I’m surprised nobody here said “We need a bigger boat.”)

The Meg is yet another entry in the recent wave of U.S./Asian co-productions, in this case Warner Bros. aligned with China’s Gravity Pictures. As was the case with Pacific Rim: Uprising and Skyscraper, such collaborations give us not the best of both cultures, but the worst. Enduring lazy, sloppy, lowest-common-denominator Hollywood junk is bad enough; watching it intertwined with equally vapid Chinese pop-culture elements is a special sort of torture.

This is the nadir of summertime popcorn adventure, bereft of even the faintest semblance of reasonable behavior by anything approaching a credible character. The Meg is a live-action cartoon, which I suppose can be enjoyed on that level, if viewers are willing to check expectations at the box office.

But don’t expect anything better than the Syfy Channel’s deservedly maligned Sharknado series. Much of Monday evening’s sold-out preview audience spent a lot of time unleashing eye-rolling snickers of contempt.

The Meg began life as a 1997 novel by American science-fiction author Steven Robert Alten, who built it into a franchise that has produced six more books as of this year’s Meg: Generations, with another expected in 2019. (The mind doth boggle.) This film’s script borrows very little aside from the first novel’s basic premise: that the Mariana Trench is much deeper than believed, because its “bottom” actually is a cold water layer that covers a hitherto undiscovered sub-ocean, populated by all manner of strange creatures.

Including a massive prehistoric shark known as a megalodon. (An actual creature, as far as we know; a model of megalodon jaws can be viewed at the American Museum of Natural History.)

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Dog Days: Should be buried in the back yard

Dog Days (2018) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG, for suggestive and mildly rude humor, and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

Rarely has an August release been better titled.

If you’ve ever wondered about a director’s impact on a film, look no further than this woeful misfire. 

Dax (Adam Pally) doesn't know a thing about looking out for a dog, when he's abruptly
dragooned into caring for his sister's pooch Charlie. Fortunately, they bond quickly over
junk food and bad movies.
From its first scene to the last, Dog Days reeks of directorial incompetence, because almost nobody in the sizable ensemble cast delivers a credible performance. Line readings are flat, wooden and unconvincing; the so-called acting is stiff, clumsy and insincere.

Potentially amusing bits of dialog land with the dismal thump of a proverbial lead balloon. Not that it matters much, because nothing is fresh about Elissa Matsueda and Erica Oyama’s uninspired script, which can be anticipated at every turn.

Marino and his writers apparently have tried to duplicate the parallel interlocked storylines and gentle romantic comedy vibe of Garry Marshall’s Valentine’s Day (2010) and New Year’s Eve (2011), with minimal results. The multiple character dynamics don’t work when the interactions are so forced and unnatural, and the interactive elements feel contrived.

Were it not for this film’s many four-legged co-stars — kudos to veteran animal trainer Mark Harden — Dog Days would be a total bust.

The two-legged players, in no particular order:

• Perky but rather stiff Channel 6 morning show newscaster Elizabeth (Nina Dobrev), recently jilted by her two-timing boyfriend, is forced to take on a co-host: former NFL star Jimmy Johnston (Tone Bell). She dislikes him on sight, but grudgingly bonds, over time, because their dogs — Sam and Brandy, respectively — get along so well.

• Radiant coffee shop barista Tara (Vanessa Hudgens) frets about her wasted college degree in marketing, while swooning over hunky veterinarian Dr. Mike (Michael Cassidy), and oblivious to how much socially awkward, rescue-dog agency owner Garrett (Jon Bass) wishes that she’d notice him. This dynamic shifts when Tara finds an abandoned Chihuahua she promptly dubs Gertrude.

• New parents Greg (Thomas Lennon) and Ruth (Jessica St. Clair), overstressed by the arrival of twins, foist their labradoodle Charlie onto her irresponsible brother Dax (Adam Pally), a musician forever seeking gigs for his band, who isn’t allowed to have dogs in his loft apartment building.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Christopher Robin: Endearing, but uneven

Christopher Robin (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.3.18

I’ve long regarded title credits as a strong indication of quality; a director who cares enough to insist upon clever, stylish or (in some manner) unusual credits, generally can be counted upon to give his film the same attention to detail.

Desperate to prevent passersby from realizing that Pooh is a stuffed bear who nonetheless
walks and talks, Christopher (Ewan McGregor) begs his childhood friend to "play taking
a nap."
In that respect, then, director Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin begins auspiciously. An extended prolog is lovingly and warmly animated from the E.H. Shepard illustrations in A.A. Milne’s original Winnie the Pooh books; the sequence also incorporates flipped pages laden with the correct type font. In all respects, it’s like we viewers jump into the book itself and become part of what follows, much in the manner of Jasper Fforde’s delightful Thursday Next novels.

This lengthy, period-appropriate introduction also establishes the firm bond between young Christopher Robin (Orton O’Brien) and his half-dozen plush animal friends, all seemingly hand-stitched, as if by some doting parent. They’ve organized a party in the Hundred Acre Wood, but the occasion is somber: Christopher Robin is heading off to boarding school. The mood is pure “Puff, the Magic Dragon.”

These sweetly animated characters are voiced sublimely, their note-perfect dialog — here, and throughout the entire film — impeccably crafted to match Milne’s blend of innocence and gentle playfulness (with numerous quotes lifted directly from the page). We can’t help being both charmed and saddened; the sweet sorrow of this impending parting is almost more than can be withstood.

Then the movie proper kicks in, and the mood is ... well, badly compromised, if not completely shattered.

The script — credited, with eyebrow-raising concern, to five different hands — is a patchwork mess stitched together with far less care than that given to its animated stars. The plot is a clumsy mash-up of Steven Spielberg’s Hook and Disney’s Mary Poppins — both centering around an adult who has lost track of his childhood sense of wonder — blended with numerous un-subtle nods to the three Disney Winnie the Pooh cartoon shorts produced between 1966 and ’74.

To make matters even worse, this film’s (mostly) soothing tone often is marred by the destructive slapstick sequences that infected so many of Disney’s insufferably stupid late 1960s and early ’70s live-action comedies. The sudden shift in tone can cause whiplash.

In a nutshell, these characters — human and otherwise — are far better than the derivative, wafer-thin and disappointing story into which they’ve been dumped.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot: A rewarding stroll

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for dramatic intensity, alcohol abuse, nudity, sexual candor and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.27.18

The quickest entry to John Callahan’s caustic, macabre and self-deprecating sense of humor is to understand that this film takes its title from his 1989 autobiography, written 17 years after the traffic accident that left him a C5-6 quadriplegic.

As John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) begins to morph into an actual human being, he's
helped along the way by the kindness and patience of Annu (Rooney Mara).
His scratchy, hilariously irreverent cartoons appeared everywhere for a time, from Omni and Harper’s to National Lampoon and Penthouse. Most notably, his work was featured for 27 years in the Portland, Ore., newspaper Willamette Week, where both he and the staff delighted in the occasional protests and boycotts by enraged readers.

That reaction remains true to this day. You can’t help laughing at most of Callahan’s work, but then — just as quickly — you wonder whether you should.

All this said, he isn’t necessarily an ideal subject for a biographical drama … particularly one that wishes to be factually and emotionally accurate. He was as aggressively confrontational as his cartoons; for quite a number of years before and after the accident, he also was an exceptionally nasty alcoholic. It’s not easy to spend two hours with such an unpleasant person, and Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t hold back; his depiction of Callahan is quite brutal at times.

But we are a species which, by nature, believes in the miracle of epiphanies … and few individuals have undergone a greater change. That isthe stuff of captivating film dramas.

Director/scripter Gus Van Sant has spent the bulk of his career crafting compelling sagas about equally challenging — and often unlikable — individuals, from Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho up through To Die ForElephant and Paranoid Park. His films intrigue not only for their unusual characters, but also for the often non-linear manner in which he lets a saga unfold.

That’s particularly true of Don’t Worry, which structures its (more or less) chronological narrative via Callahan’s candid recollections, as depicted during numerous Alcoholics Anonymous meetings; a chance encounter with young neighborhood skateboarders; and while addressing a crowd at a popular public presentation, after he had become quite famous. These sequences are further interspersed with animated versions of Callahan’s signature cartoons.

The running thread — the moral — is consistent throughout: Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Shrug it off, whatever it is, and take control.

A valuable lesson: one that took Callahan years to recognize, understand and embrace.