Friday, February 5, 2016

Hail, Caesar! — A block, a stone, a worse than senseless thing

Hail, Caesar! (2016) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, and rather harshly, for mildly suggestive content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.5.16

A new Coen brothers film usually is cause for celebration.

Not this time.

Capitol Pictures studio head Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has just learned that his
water ballet star, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), is pregnant. She's also
unmarried: a potentially juicy scandal waiting to be scooped up by hovering
Hollywood gossip columnists.
Hail, Caesar! is a classic study of wretched excess: a labored, overcooked, star-heavy production that isn’t nearly as funny as everybody seems to think.

I’m reminded of Steven Spielberg’s 1941, also a bloated period comedy made at a point when the then-young director thought he could do no wrong. It, too, is an overwrought mess that mostly wastes the talents of a cast that was impressive for its time.

Spielberg’s 1941 attempted to mine humor from a WWII-era storyline that proposed a Japanese submarine invasion off the California coast. Hail, Caesar!, set in Hollywood during the “nifty fifties” — when, terrified by the arrival of television, the motion picture industry’s glorious façade was beginning to show visible cracks — attempts to mine humor from (among other things) a Communist submarine invasion off the California coast.

A moment which, it must be mentions, climaxes the film’s most protracted and thoroughly inane subplot.

At its core, though, the Coen brothers’ script is a day-in-the-life study of Hollywood studio chief Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who confronts various crises — large and small — during a typical 24 hours. His soundstages are laden with sets and stars for numerous films in various stages of production, and all are typical of the time period:

• A sophisticated drawing room melodrama, where disgruntled, mildly prissy director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) has just been saddled with corn-pone singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) as his new young protagonist;

• A sailors-at-sea musical, with song-and-dance superstar Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) channeling Gene Kelly;

• A waterlogged, Busby Berkeley-style extravaganza, headlined by swimming sensation DeeAnna Moran (Scarlet Johansson); and, most particularly...

• A biblical epic featuring famed studio leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), as a Roman centurion who undergoes a moral conversion after encountering no less than Jesus himself.

The Choice: Choose something else

The Choice (2016) • View trailer 
1.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for sensuality and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

If we’re gonna get treacle, it needs to be served better than this.

Movies based on Nicholas Sparks’ novels have become an annual nuisance, much like the return of hurricane season. His formulaic plots have grown tedious, his signature narrative gimmicks ripe for parody.

Gabby (Teresa Palmer) is happily attached to a longtime boyfriend. She doesn't even
really like her neighbor, Travis (Benjamin Walker). She nonetheless invites him over for
a romantic dinner. Can you guess what happens next?
The newest assault on our tear ducts, The Choice, offers all the same ingredients. A quaint, gorgeous setting, often coastal; check. Somebody at an emotional crossroads; check. An introductory romantic dinner in a quasi-isolated setting; check. Written messages exchanged in some droll or unusual manner; check.

And, of course, a tragedy of some sort — illness, accident, meteor strike — that Destroys Everything; double-check.

One’s willingness to buy into such sudsy melodrama depends on many factors, but we must acknowledge the necessity of a competent script and reasonably talented actors. The Choice has neither, which — coupled with the usual Sparks contrivances — makes it not only unwatchable, but hilariously awful. I’d love to see the ’bots from Mystery Science Theater 3000 take a poke at it.

Bryan Sipe’s screenplay is dreadful, his dialog the stuff of puerile TV soap operas. People simply don’t talk like this. Director Ross Katz doesn’t help matters, having no distinguishable talent that I can determine. He gets nothing but stiff and robotic performances from his stars, and a middle-school film student could improve upon the bland camera set-ups.

Most damningly, though, leading lady Teresa Palmer can’t act a lick. (Alternatively, and to maintain the shared blame, Katz can’t draw a performance out of her.) Her line readings are flat and howlingly awful, and her fallback “emotional reaction” — employed relentlessly — involves bobbing her head and flipping her hair: a dead giveaway to her (one hopes more successful) former career as a model.

Her introductory “meet cute” exchange with co-star Benjamin Walker is impressively awkward and forced. And Katz deemed it worthy of a “cut and print” command? He’s delusional.

Monday, February 1, 2016

When Marnie Was There: A poignant slice of Gothic Lite

When Marnie Was There (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, and pointlessly, solely because some characters smoke

By Derrick Bang

As has become a rather quirky custom in recent years, two of the recently announced Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Feature prompted bewildered frowns.

No surprise, since both are all but unknown on these shores.

After a rather clumsy attempt at traversing the flooded marsh, Anna, left, gratefully
accepts some rowing tips from her new best friend, Marnie.
Brazil’s Boy and the World has yet to achieve wide release in the States, although a few Northern California venues are scheduled to open it later this month. Japan’s When Marnie Was There supposedly received “limited release” last spring, after a few festival appearances ... but it sure never played anywhere near our neighborhood.

Fortunately, Marnie is readily available for home viewing, having been released on DVD and Blu-ray on Oct. 6. It’s definitely worth the rental — or purchase — as it’s yet another of Studio Ghibli’s elegant fantasies, with a touching story perfectly told via lush, hand-drawn animation.

More than anything else, Studio Ghibli’s animators always establish a firm sense of place. Our heroine spends the bulk of her saga on the northernmost island of Hokkaido, in a moody, wind-swept marshland that frequently floods with the ocean tide. Grass sways gently; flowers and trees dance in the breeze; water laps along the barren shore.

The film is based on British author Joan G. Robinson’s 1967 novel of the same title, which until Studio Ghibli’s interest had become almost impossible to find (along with most of her other books). Hayao Miyazaki cited it as one of his 50 recommended children’s books, and in late 2013 announced that his studio would bring it to the big screen.

This wide-ranging interest in classic children’s fiction comes as no surprise to longtime Studio Ghibli fans, since 2010’s The Secret World of Arrietty was based on British author Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. That film was co-scripted by Miyazaki and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi; the latter has directed When Marnie Was There, and adapted it with co-scripters Keiko Niwa and Masashi Ando.

They’ve done a lovely job.

Our young protagonist, Anna, is a typical Studio Ghibli heroine who feels disconnected from the rest of the world. With short hair and plain clothes, she looks more like a boy than a girl: likely a bit of emotional defiance every bit as protectively concealing as the plain face she displays at all times.

“Everyone else is inside: inside some sort of invisible magic circle,” she ponders, during a moment of interior reflection lifted directly from Robinson’s novel. “But I’m outside.”

Friday, January 29, 2016

The 2015 Academy Awards Shorts: Grim tidings

The 2015 Academy Awards Shorts (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Unrated, but akin to a PG-13 for strong war themes and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.29.16

While the rest of the country kvetches about racial disparity in the recently released Academy Award nominations — a “problem” that has everything to do with what is and isn’t put into production by Hollywood studios, and nothing at all to do with Academy voters — those who anguish about such things will find solace in one direction.

The short subjects categories are, and always have been, a richly international affair.

That’s particularly true with the 2015 nominees, which come from Palestine, Germany, the United Kingdom, Chile, France, Austria, Kosovo, Ireland and even Russia.

In terms of quality and storytelling, the live-action nominees are uniformly excellent. They’re also politically heavy and, in three cases, quite grim and emotionally upsetting: as far as could be imagined from the cotton candy often found in Hollywood features.

I’ve always been drawn to short films, for the same reason that I seek out short stories: Bloated, 800-page novels forgive considerable authorial excess, whereas every single word must be perfect in an 12-page story.

Just as every frame must count, in a 12-minute short film.

The jewel in this year’s live action quintet is director Basil Khalil’s Ave Maria, which takes an unexpectedly light-hearted look at one of the world’s worst geo-political hot spots. The story opens on the silent routine of five Palestinian nuns who live in a convent in the West Bank wilderness; their worship is interrupted by the arrival of a nervous Israeli settler family, whose car breaks down just outside the convent door.

A potentially tense situation — the elder Israeli woman immediately fears being killed — is stressed further by the Sabbath’s arrival, at which point the nuns are forbidden speech.

It’s difficult to imagine anybody successfully mining a gentle comedy from this premise, but that’s precisely what Khalil has accomplished. (He co-wrote the droll script with Daniel Yáñez Khalil.) The narrative moves in a marvelous direction, in great part due to the unexpectedly resourceful involvement of young Sister Marie (Maria Zriek).

It’s a perfect little package, right up to the final scene. And, let it be said, richly enlightening.

The Finest Hours: Waterlogged

The Finest Hours (2016) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

I’ll never understand Hollywood.

The actual account of one brave Coast Guard crew’s mission to rescue survivors of the maimed T2 oil tanker SS Pendleton, undertaken during a raging nor’easter off the New England coast on Feb. 18, 1952, is the stuff of unbelievable legend: a saga of bravery, luck and utterly amazing persistence.

With Seaman Richard Livesey (Ben Foster, left) scanning into the darkness, Coast Guard
Boatswain's Mate First Class Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) struggles to control their small
rescue vessel amid a raging nor'easter, as they try to find the remnants of a
shattered tanker.
Give it to Disney, and it turns into an overcooked, eye-rolling, melodramatic mess.

Granted, the ocean-bound storm sequences are awesome and persuasive, the depiction of the crippled SS Pendleton — literally torn in half by the storm — grimly unsettling on all sorts of levels.

The problem is with character behavior and interpersonal dynamics, as concocted by scripters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson. Rarely have so many people behaved so childishly, so stupidly, so TV soap opera-ishly.

And so bewilderingly.

For starters, it’s impossible to get a bead on our primary hero, Coast Guard Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), who overplays a blend of shyness, uncertainty and self-censure to the point that he seems incapable of completing a sentence, let alone piloting a vessel. A failed previous mission apparently has left him riddled with guilt, but that scarcely explains the degree to which he’s belittled, teased and dismissed by both the local veteran fishermen, and his Coast Guard colleagues at the Chatham, Mass., Lifeboat Station.

Then there’s his feckless boss, Daniel Cuff (Eric Bana), assumed to be incompetent because his accent brands him as having come from “somewhere else.” The accusation likely has merit, because Bana plays the role with utter bewilderment, as if Cuff doesn’t even understand how to use the station equipment. We’re supposed to believe this?

But nobody can top the childish histrionics of Holliday Grainger’s Miriam, who frequently behaves like a 5-year-old having a temper tantrum. A confrontation between Miriam and Cuff is so howlingly awful, orchestrated so poorly by director Craig Gillespie, that it must be seen to be disbelieved.

We can’t really fault Grainger, who’s obviously limited to her scripted lines, and the “guidance” from Gillespie. Miriam nonetheless remains the worst “devoted gal left behind” that I’ve seen in many, many years.

Kung Fu Panda 3: Still kicking up lots of fun

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, and needlessly, for mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang

For a franchise that began with a one-joke premise — a roly-poly panda, as a kung fu master? — this series has shown remarkable resilience.

Once Po, left, meets his equally mischievous biological father, the two pandas embark on
a spirited "play date" that almost destroys the venerable jade palace.
Considerable credit obviously goes to scripters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, who’ve been on board since 2008’s first film. They’ve nailed just the right blend of goofy physical comedy and witty dialog (gotta keep the adults entertained!) while including a virtuous moral or two.

The voice talent also is first-rate, starting with the always amusing Jack Black, as the frequently flustered title character; ample assistance comes from supporting players performed by Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen and particularly James Hong. They and others have remained involved from the beginning, and such continuity definitely helps the franchise.

Mostly, though, these films are fun, in the silly, good-natured manner that also has kept the Ice Age series running strong for so long.

As Kung Fu Panda 3 opens, our hero Po’s beloved teacher, Shifu (Hoffman), decides to step down as the local kung fu master. On his way out, Shifu assigns Po the next challenge in his evolution as the local Dragon Warrior: to become the instructor of his warrior colleagues, the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Chan), Mantis (Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross).

The first training session ... leaves much to be desired.

Recriminations and self-doubt are cut short, however, by the arrival of an unexpected visitor: another dumpling-devouring panda, named Li (Bryan Cranston), who bears a striking resemblance to Po ... and claims to be our hero’s actual father. This doesn’t sit well with Mr. Ping (Hong), the goose who runs the village noodle shop and has been Po’s adoptive father, lo these many years.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Carol: Nothing to sing about

Carol (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for nudity and intimate sexuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.15.16

Intimate dramas work best when we understand and empathize with the primary characters: when we feel like we know them.

Even during their first meeting, Therese (Rooney Mara, left) can't help noticing the
smoldering, come-hither gaze that Carol (Cate Blanchett) delivers with a shameless
lack of subtlety.
Despite the scrupulous care with which director Todd Haynes has assembled his new film, it’s almost impossible to become involved with the storyline. The narrative is slow, the tone is sweepingly luxurious, and the performances are overstated: all intentional, since Haynes is imitating the opulent 1950s melodramas made by director Douglas Sirk (Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life and many others).

Which would be fine, if playwright Phyllis Nagy had done a better job with her adaptation of The Price of Salt, the Patricia Highsmith novel on which this film is based.

Granted, Cate Blanchett delivers another of her carefully sculpted performances as protagonist Carol Aird (although I’d argue that Blanchett did the “anguished socialite” shtick much better in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine).

But despite the film’s title, Carol isn’t the most important character in this story, as Highsmith made abundantly clear in her novel. That would be the younger Therese Belivet, who remains an utter cipher as portrayed by co-star Rooney Mara. It’s not entirely her fault; she hits the higher emotional notes reasonably well. But Mara’s Therese has too much “down time,” when she simply stares vacantly toward the camera, as if waiting for Haynes’ next instruction.

More to the point, we know nothing about Therese: her background, the reason she’s so arbitrarily bitchy toward longtime boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy, who does his best in a thankless role), or — most crucially — why she’s so suddenly infatuated with Carol. We get none of the essential back-story present in Highsmith’s novel.

OK, fine; Therese is trying to “find herself.” But that isn’t good enough; Mara doesn’t sell her half of the dynamic, and therefore the entire film sinks beneath the weight of its own flamboyantly breathy ambiance.