Friday, June 24, 2016

The Shallows: Awash with excitement

The Shallows (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, bloody peril, brief gore and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.24.16

Solo turns are demanding even for accomplished performers, and for the obvious reason: It’s not easy to emote in a vacuum. Actors draw a lot of energy from the dynamic shared with co-stars; remove the rhythm established with such a bond, and the challenge increases exponentially.

She may be injured — bitten by a shark, stung by numerous jellyfish, battered by undersea
rocks — but Nancy (Blake Lively) is not one to surrender in despair. One way or another,
she's determined to make it back to shore ... even though she knows, intellectually, that
she can't hope to out-swim her watchful attacker.
Several examples leap to mind: Tom Hanks, in Cast Away; Robert Redford, in All Is Lost; and — for much of the film — Leonardo DiCaprio, in The Revenant. Perhaps not coincidentally, all are survival dramas.

To their company we now add Blake Lively, in The Shallows. And while I wouldn’t presume to equate her acting chops with the three individuals cited above, she nonetheless delivers a credible, persuasive portrayal of a resourceful, level-headed woman who does her best to overcome a horrific situation.

Because, yes, this is another survival drama.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s tidy little thriller can be summed up in three words: Woman vs. shark. But scripter Anthony Jaswinski finds increasingly clever ways to expand upon that simple premise, building suspense via the careful establishment of character and detail. Jaswinski, bless him, obviously understands the dramatic principle of Chekhov’s gun: If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.

The Shallows is constructed very much in the style of a taut three-act play: the deceptively calm introduction; the explosion of danger, and explicit disclosure of overwhelming odds; and, finally, the struggle. Given that structure, Jaswinski deftly inserts trivial and incidental first-act details that later prove important.

I like smart scripts, and this is a smart script.

We meet Nancy Adams (Lively) as a passenger being driven to an isolated beach somewhere along the Mexican coast (actually Lord Howe Island, approximately 600 nautical miles east of Sydney, Australia). As we gradually learn, via brief flashbacks and phone calls, she’s making a cathartic pilgrimage of sorts, to the place where family lore says she was conceived.

Nancy is a skilled surfer; so was her mother, in her day. Nancy’s driver, Carlos (Óscar Jaenada), doesn’t quite believe any of this saga, but he recognizes that the trip is nonetheless important to this perky American. Their skillfully sketched conversation, lasting only a few minutes, tells us everything we need to know about Nancy. Jaswinski’s dialog is economical; the casual, spontaneous bond between Nancy and Carlos is well developed by the two actors. It feels genuine.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Finding Dory: Another aquatic hit from Pixar

Finding Dory (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, and needlessly, for mild fantasy peril

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.17.16

Best...

...sidekick...

...ever.

Dory, in search of her parents, eventually finds her way to California's Marine Life
Institute. While searching the various aquatic zones, she encounters Hank, a
foul-tempered octopus with a flair for escapes and camouflage.
The hilariously confused, memory-challenged Dory stole the show in 2003’s Finding Nemo: no small feat, considering the engaging story and wealth of equally colorful aquatic and avian characters. And yet, with this long-gestating sequel, the folks at Pixar have done the impossible, by concocting a new co-star who gives even Dory a run for her money.

We really shouldn’t be surprised, since Pixar makes a habit of doing the impossible.

Finding Dory continues the saga of everybody’s favorite blue tang fish, voiced with such delightful, off-kilter haze by Ellen DeGeneres. As director/co-scripter Andrew Stanton explains, in his film’s press notes, Finding Nemo — despite its clearly happy conclusion — left perceptive viewers with an open question: What would become of Dory?

Her attention deficit disorder and short-term memory issues clearly weren’t going away, so ... what if she got lost again? Remember, Nemo wasn’t the only fish “lost” in the first film; we knew nothing of Dory’s origin, or what sequence of events put her in the path of the fretting clownfish Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), as he attempted to find his “kidnapped” young son.

Obviously, this was the perfect excuse for a sequel.

Stanton and his colleagues — co-director Angus MacLane, and co-scripters Victoria Strouse and Bob Peterson — have delivered the goods. Finding Dory has the essential Pixar magic: appealing characters, well-cast voice actors, zany sight gags, gentle environmental messages and, most importantly, a finely tuned story that builds to a mirthfully exciting climax.

Rarely has defeat been snatched so frequently, and cleverly, from the jaws of victory. Every time we think things have worked out ... the rug gets pulled out from under us. Time and again.

And we love it.

Maggie's Plan: The best-laid schemes...

Maggie's Plan (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity, sexual candor and brief nudity

By Derrick Bang

God must chuckle over how we mortals keep screwing up our own lives.

We fret, we fuss; we second-guess ourselves; we concoct absurdly elaborate schemes designed to accomplish this or that, but which invariably fail; we rebound with even more ludicrous counter-schemes.

When Maggie (Greta Gerwig, left) realizes that she has made a mistake by marrying John,
she concocts an unlikely scheme to re-unite him with ex-wife Georgette (Julianne Moore).
That's assuming, of course, that Georgette even wants him back...
If we’d simply relax and get out of our own way, letting nature take its course, we’d likely be much more pleased with the results.

Writer/director Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan has great fun with this notion. The indie filmmaker’s endearing romantic comedy — based on a story by Karen Rinaldi — also is another fine showcase for steadily rising star Greta Gerwig. The angst-riddled characters and New York setting make comparisons to Woody Allen inevitable, although Miller’s focus is female-centric; she’s also better — more organic — at skewering the pretentious affectations that make her characters so frequently sound like recently arrived visitors from Jupiter.

I’ve often felt that Allen’s gibes at Manhattan pomposity are made at the expense of his characters; the tone feels snooty. Miller, in great contrast, clearly sympathizes with her protagonists, even as she exposes their narcissism; it feels more like Miller is ruefully shaking her head, hoping that we’ll learn by this gentler — but still quite funny — example.

Maggie Hardin (Gerwig) wants to have a baby. Desperately. But she’s unwilling to take the conventional approach, given a track record of relationships that have lasted no more than six months. Artificial insemination therefore seems the best route, and Maggie has selected a slightly off-kilter, former college acquaintance (Travis Fimmel, as Guy) who abandoned a mathematics degree in favor of becoming a pickle entrepreneur.

Despite the decision having been made, Maggie remains conflicted. She shares her doubts with a personal Greek chorus: longtime best friend Tony (Bill Hader) and his wife, Felicia (Maya Rudolph). He’s a lawyer; she and Maggie are work colleagues at The New School, in Greenwich Village. Although Tony and Felicia are a bit crusty with each other, theirs is a loving and successful relationship, and they also care deeply about Maggie ... even if they frequently fail to understand her.

Maggie’s chance encounter with New School part-time teacher John Harding (Ethan Hawke) leads to a fast friendship. They spark: He’s a frustrated debut novelist trying to find his voice; she’s an eager and sympathetic reader. The bond deepens, and that’s a problem; John is married to Georgette (Julianne Moore), and they have two children.

Central Intelligence: Very little on display

Central Intelligence (2016) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, and generously, for strong profanity, crude humor, fleeting nudity and considerable violence

By Derrick Bang

Personality can trump weak material, and that’s certainly the case here.

Director/co-scripter Rawson Marshall Thurber’s limp spy comedy is nothing to write home about, and the so-called plot — fitfully fleshed out with Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen — is pretty thin gruel, mostly serving as a flimsy template for sight gags and one-liners.

An online data analysis request made by Bob (Dwayne Johnson, right) seems simple
enough, but Calvin's (Kevin Hart) accounting savvy quickly alerts him to strange transaction
details. In another few minutes, he'll know that he should have left well enough alone...
But stars Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart give the package far more oomph than it deserves. They’re a great Mutt ’n’ Jeff pair, milking considerable humor from their size differential — an entire 12 inches! — and disparate personality quirks. The ever-smiling Johnson is sunshine and light, unflappably carefree even under crazed circumstances; Hart, in turn, is fussy, frantic and eternally put-upon. They play off each other quite well.

Which is a good thing, because they certainly deliver more than the material deserves.

Central Intelligence opens with a cringe-inducing prologue, set 20 years in the past, as high school superstar senior Calvin Joyner — nicknamed The Golden Jet, for all his sports and academic accomplishments — celebrates his graduation with a triumphant pep rally speech before the entire senior class. The event becomes notorious when five bullies burst into the room and toss the gentle but haplessly overweight Robbie Weirdicht, the uncoolest kid in school, onto the gym floor. Butt-naked.

Via the magic of CGI “sweetening,” Hart and Johnson play these younger versions of their characters (the latter’s puffy features, grafted onto an extra’s body, being particularly spooky).

Calvin resurrects some of poor Robbie’s dignity with an act of generosity: a benevolent gesture destined to have unexpected consequences.

Flash-forward to the present day. Calvin (Hart), despite all those long-ago “most likely to succeed” accolades, has become a drone accountant stuck on the middle rung of the corporate ladder, garnering zero respect from colleagues (Ryan Hansen’s Steve being a particularly obnoxious example). On the possible side, Calvin did marry high school sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet), and they’re clearly made for each other.

Trouble is, Calvin’s career dissatisfaction has magnified into marital tension.

Then, out of the blue, Calvin gets a Facebook “friend request” from somebody named Bob Stone. Intimidated by the Facebook culture into accepting, Calvin gets an immediate “let’s go for a beer” offer from said fellow. To Calvin’s astonishment, it turns out that “Bob Stone” (Johnson, now in all his buff glory) actually is a new and improved Robbie. All he did, Bob explains, is work out six hours a day, every day, for the past 20 years. Heck, he insists, anybody could do that.

Superbly toned bod notwithstanding, Bob still is hopeless uncool, decked out in a fanny pack, and sporting a T-shirt with a My Little Pony unicorn. Worse yet, his favorite film still is 16 Candles, and his clumsy efforts at “bro talk” generally land with a thud.

And yes, watching the towering Johnson wallow contentedly in geeky affectations is just as funny as it sounds.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Now You See Me 2: No rabbit in this hat

Now You See Me 2 (2016) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for profanity and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.10.16

A good magician knows when to get off the stage, and how to leave an audience wanting more.

This film fails on both counts.

After being transported halfway around the world in a manner they can't comprehend, the
Four Horsemen — from left, Jack (Dave Franco), Lula (Lizzy Caplan), Atlas (Jesse
Eisenberg) and Merritt (Woody Harrelson) — are about to confront their captor.
That said, director Jon M. Chu is quite accomplished at another technique favored by magicians: repeatedly distracting us with inconsequential glitz, noise and plenty of flash, as a means of concealing the true ruse ... the fact that Ed Solomon’s confused, cluttered and ultimately contradictory screenplay doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Like so many other overblown, empty-calorie sequels, this one’s all sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing. When we finally see what’s behind the curtain — and a bewildering, exposition-heavy epilog provides just such a scene — the letdown is palpable.

Sure, it’s fun to watch — sort of — but the joy is fleeting (although, at 129 minutes, not fleeting enough). But goodness; must frothy popcorn entertainment be so brain-dead?

Character development wasn’t a strong (card) suit in 2013’s Now You See Me, but at least some effort was made. Solomon wrote the script for that one as well, but he worked from a story by Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt. This time, Solomon also co-wrote the story, with Pete Chiarelli; both apparently decided that granting their stars anything approaching actual human behavior would have been superfluous.

Thus, the personalities of this sequel’s so-called “Four Horsemen” can be boiled down to single words: J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) is arrogant; Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is smug; Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) is bashful; and Lula (Lizzy Caplan) is reckless.

Attentive viewers may realize that Lula is a newcomer, replacing the first film’s Henley Reeves, played by Isla Fisher. No doubt the latter took one look at this new script, said words to the effect of “Are you kidding?” and bolted. More power to her.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Alice Through the Looking Glass: Not such a much

Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016) • View trailer 
3 stars. Rated PG, for fantasy peril

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.27.16

This film conclusively demonstrates that it’s extremely difficult — if not impossible — to replicate Tim Burton’s signature brand of whimsy.

Mere moments after having traveled through the looking-glass, Alice (Mia Wasikowska)
clumsily triggers a crisis that "all the king's horses, and all the king's men" will have to
repair. Which is par for the course, for this film's dim-bulb Alice.
It’s not merely a matter of Burton’s directorial finesse; he’s also a shrewd judge of source material, and how it should be shaped. Either he carefully selects equally talented screenwriters, or he’s actively involved in how a script reaches its final draft; either way, the result — time and again — is weirdly droll, oddly endearing and invariably, if improbably, entertaining.

And — here’s the important part — meticulously structured, and consistent within its own fantasy universe.

None of which can be said about Alice Through the Looking Glass. Linda Woolverton’s script is a mess; her slapdash plot begs, borrows and steals from sources as varied as H.G. Wells, Frozen and the Back to the Future trilogy.

James Bobin’s direction is uninspired and lifeless. Somebody apparently thought he’d be right for the job, on the basis of his having helmed the two most recent Muppets movies. At the risk of stating the obvious, human characters need more directorial guidance than Muppets, who get most of their personality from their unseen “muppeteers.” Alice (Mia Wasikowska) and her various co-stars get very little guidance here.

Granted, this sequel to Burton’s Alice in Wonderland looks equally fabulous. Dan Hennah’s production design is opulent, imaginative and richly colorful: no surprise, as he’s a veteran of all three Hobbit chapters. Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood is a carryover from the first Alice, and her efforts here are equally creative, often amusing and sometimes flat-out beautiful; Alice’s kimono-style outfit is particularly fetching.

And, yes, the special effects are excellent, if overused ... and that’s part of the problem. As just one example, Bobin wastes an awful lot of screen footage with repeated sequences of Alice sailing through the “oceans of time,” and repetition does not make such journeys more interesting. Quite the opposite.

Love & Friendship: Witty and delightful

Love & Friendship (2016) • View trailer 
4 stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang


I wonder if late 18th century aristocrats actually were so unswervingly polite with each other, or whether that’s an affectation we’ve grown to expect from Jane Austen stories.

Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) has designs on the much younger Reginald
DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), a potential match that horrifies his sister and their parents.
Lady Susan couldn't care less about their objections, so the question remains: Can
anything save the poor lad from this black widow's clutches?
Whatever the actual truth, dramatic adaptations of Austen’s tales always are a treat, in great part because of the diabolically deceptive manner in which characters cut each other dead, with such cleverly scathing turns of phrase ... always delivered quietly, with a disarming smile that leaves the victim in stunned silence.

Director/scripter Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship has many such delectable moments, with plenty of tart dialog exchanged between the various good-hearted characters who do their best to survive encounters with the predatory schemer in their midst. The film is based on a lesser-known Austen work: the epistolary novella Lady Susan, likely written in the 1790s, before any of her published longer works, and then withheld. It remained unseen for half a century after her death, until a nephew published it in 1871.

Aside from its relative brevity, Lady Susan differs from Austen’s “classic” works — most notably Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma — in that its “heroine” is neither honorable nor admirable. Lady Susan Vernon is selfish, conniving and utterly ruthless, caring not a whit for the bruised or shattered feelings of those left in her wake.

In short, she’s a monster.

And yet, as played here to saucy, unapologetically haughty perfection by Kate Beckinsale, she’s utterly irresistible.

From a safe distance.

The saga begins as the recently widowed Lady Susan flees a scandal, choosing to “hide out” at Churchill, the estate of her in-laws, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his wife, Catherine DeCourcy Vernon (Emma Greenwell). Charles is magnanimous, by nature believing the best in everybody; Catherine is wary, recalling how her marriage was so vociferously opposed by Lady Susan.

Still, Lady Susan now appears chastened and friendly; Catherine cautiously hopes for the best.

She should have gone with her first instinct.