Friday, August 29, 2014

The November Man: Who can be trusted?

The November Man (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence, rape, profanity, sexuality and brief drug use

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.29.14

I always enjoy a well-crafted spy thriller, and this one’s a romp.

Australian director Roger Donaldson knows the territory, having delivered a twisty espionage thriller back in 1987, with his adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s No Way Out. It remains one of star Kevin Costner’s best early films, thanks in great part to its didn’t-see-that-coming finale.

Devereaux (Pierce Brosnan, left) delights in setting up fight-or-flight "scenarios" for junior
partner Mason (Luke Bracey), which the latter finds a bit tiresome. And insulting. Which
rather misses the point, because the cocky Mason definitely needs to enhance his ability
to analyze a situation before it whirls out of control.
Donaldson’s handling of The November Man is cut from similar cloth, with scripters Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek delivering an engaging spin on a cherry-picked entry in the late journalist-turned-novelist Bill Granger’s 13-book Devereaux series, which began with 1979’s The November Man and concluded with 1993’s Burning the Apostle. This film’s title notwithstanding, however, it’s based not on Granger’s first Deveraux book, but on the seventh, There Are No Spies.

That said, Finch and Gajdusek’s screenplay more honestly is “flavored” by Granger’s book, with numerous changes obviously intended to satisfy action-oriented audiences. The result is reasonably entertaining in a fast-paced “airplane movie” sort of way, with star Pierce Brosnan ideally cast as a cynical, world-weary spy dragged out of semi-retirement to fix another mess involving the CIA, a corrupt Russian presidential candidate, a lethal assassin, and a possible traitor within the CIA’s highest echelons.

Although obviously aiming for the cerebral atmosphere of 1960s cold-war movie classics such as The Ipcress File and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, Donaldson doesn’t hit that target too often; he more frequently mines the who-can-be-trusted territory of 1975’s Three Days of the Condor, with a strong nod toward the mentor/protégé relationship at the heart of 2001’s Spy Game.

And heck, we’ve got a cast that include a former James Bond (Brosnan) and a former Bond babe (Olga Kurylenko, from Quantum of Solace). How can it miss?

Mostly, it doesn’t. With a few stiff caveats.

Devereaux and junior partner David Mason (Australian up-and-comer Luke Bracey) are introduced in a 2008 prologue, working a mission that goes pear-shaped when the younger operative fails to heed his mentor’s stern instructions. The anguish and disappointment are clear on Devereaux’s face; the kid has blown it, obviously dashing the older agent’s faith in him.

When the Game Stands Tall: Gridiron glory

When the Game Stands Tall (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for mild intensity and brief violence

By Derrick Bang

Inspirational sports sagas are the ultimate feel-good movies; they engage our souls and pluck at the heart, particularly when adversity and underdog status are part of the equation.

And most particularly when they’re true.

Coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel, center right), assistant coach Terry Eidson (Michael
Chiklis, center left) and members of the De La Salle Spartans react with undisguised
dread as the much larger and tougher members of the Long Beach Poly team take the
field. What follows is, by far, this film's most exciting chapter. 
Director Thomas Carter has fashioned a stirring drama from former Contra Costa Times sportswriter Neil Hayes’ 2003 nonfiction book, which profiled De La Salle High School football coach Bob Ladouceur at a point when his team had amassed a truly stunning streak of victories. Scripters Scott Marshall Smith and David Zelon have remained pretty close to established fact, allowing for the usual composite characters, one fast-and-loose modification of what happened when, and a needlessly melodramatic sidebar conflict between a young player and his overbearing father.

Those issues aside, Carter’s film is far more accurate than most that claim to be “inspired” by actual events; he respectfully captures the deeply spiritual tone that characterized Ladouceur’s entire coaching career, along with the atypically close ties and locker room candor that bonded the young players.

Yes, they really did take the field, at the start of each game, holding hands.

At first blush, star Jim Caviezel is a perfect fit for Ladouceur; as archive footage of the coach reveals, during the film’s closing credits, Caviezel looks and carries himself in much the same way. He adds the same heartfelt weight to the soulful pep talks that were typical of Ladouceur’s approach: “Winning a lot of football games is doable. Teaching kids there’s more to life, that’s hard.”

We don’t doubt, for a moment, that Caviezel’s Ladouceur genuinely cares about every single one of his players, off the field even more than on.

That said, Caviezel never has been an expressive actor, and those same closing-credits clips also show that the actor lacks the actual coach’s fire and passion. Caviezel is one of the acting community’s Mr. Cools, as his ongoing stint on TV’s Person of Interest reveals quite clearly. He’s dry and flinty, much like Clint Eastwood, and relies on half-smiles, grim silences and stern frowns to get his emotive point across.

Doesn’t always work. Co-star Laura Dern, as Ladouceur’s wife Bev, acts circles around him. She conveys greater emotional depth, in a few brief scenes, than Caviezel manages in the entire film. This is most apparent during the crisis that opens this story, as Ladouceur narrowly survives a heart attack that would have killed many men. Caviezel simply cannot sell the epiphany of Ladouceur’s initial post-recovery chat with his wife, as he acknowledges having been an absentee husband and father because of over-commitment to the job.

Nor does the film really address that issue, moving forward. Given Caviezel’s thespic limitations, that’s probably for the best.

Friday, August 22, 2014

If I Stay: Existential angst

If I Stay (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.22.14

We certainly can’t imagine what it would be like, for a soul stalled between life and death — the likely wealth of conflicting emotions at play — but Chloë Grace Moretz makes a persuasive case.

In the aftermath of a horrific accident, Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz) gradually realizes that her
soul remains in limbo, able to watch but not affect the efforts being made to save her
comatose body, which hovers near death in a hospital bed.
As the young star of director R.J. Cutler’s adaptation of Gayle Forman’s enormously popular young adult novel, Moretz is a memorably tragic heroine: engagingly shy and vulnerable, winsomely sweet, undecided in the ways we all remember from our high school years, and then forced to confront a horrific tragedy that, inexplicably, places her in a position to make an almost impossible decision.

The question is the degree to which we get involved with her unusual plight.

Forman’s book is yet another entry in the currently popular sub-genre of “doomed youth” sagas, many recently adapted to the big screen, several of them this year. The current leader of the pack obviously is John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, but we also can point to Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now, John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and several books by Nicholas Sparks, among others.

Although this trend seems somewhat masochistic, I suppose enjoying a good cry is a lot healthier than wallowing in a gory slasher flick.

The book has been carefully and sensitively handled by scripter Shauna Cross, who came to our attention after adapting her own novel Derby Girl into 2009’s under-appreciated roller-derby drama, Whip It, which gave Ellen Page a similarly endearing character arc. “If I Stay” has the added benefit of strong casting in all the supporting roles, and I’m sure Cutler had a hand in that, given his position as one of the executive producers of TV’s sharply assembled Nashville.

Moretz’s Mia Hall is a school misfit: a quiet outcast who assigned herself that role, due to a (probably justified) concern that her peers wouldn’t think much of a girl who prefers the cello, Yo-Yo Ma and Beethoven to electric guitar and the gyrations of the newest “it” band. Mia also is something of an anomaly at home: Her father, Denny (Joshua Leonard), was the drummer in a punk band before becoming a teacher; her mother, Kat (Mireille Enos), was the ultimate groupie-turned-wife, who carted Mia to gigs as a toddler and reveres tough rock chicks like Deborah Harry.

And Mia’s little brother, Teddy (Jakob Davies), idolizes Iggy Pop.

Not that anybody in Mia’s family makes her feel like an outsider. Denny and Kat are warm, supportive, tolerant and wise ... frankly, the best parents anybody could imagine. But they don’t look, feel or sound like impossibly ideal archetypes; armed with Cross’ note-perfect dialogue, and assisted by Cutler’s deft direction, Leonard and Enos simply emerge as caring adults who relate to their daughter’s angst because, well, they never quite abandoned their own anti-establishment younger selves.

This story comes armed with several moral imperatives, including this biggie: To thine own self be true. Denny and Kat know this.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight: A cute little trick

Magic in the Moonlight (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and much too harshly, for fleeting sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

Every year, like clockwork, Monarch butterflies return to Pacific Grove; Punxsutawney citizens await the arrival (or no-show) of their famed groundhog; surfers brave “the most dangerous waves in the world” during Half Moon Bay’s Mavericks Competition; and Woody Allen makes another movie.

Stanley (Colin Firth) doesn't believe in Sophie's (Emma Stone) claimed powers of
clairvoyance: not for a moment. But his debunking skills get nowhere with this charming
young American, and soon he begins to doubt: Could she be the completely genuine
spiritualist that the 1920s world has clamored to find?
The man is amazing; he hasn’t missed a year since 1981 ... and he compensated with two films in 1987.

An output that prodigious can’t help delivering mixed results, and even Allen’s staunchest fans will acknowledge that his crowd- and critic-pleasing smash hits — 2011’s Midnight in Paris being the most recent — are vastly outnumbered by quieter, smaller charmers (Scoop, To Rome with Love) and the occasional stinker (Anything Else).

Magic in the Moonlight belongs to the middle camp. It’s a modest little rom-com that feels like a mash-up of P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie: a flapper-era bit of froth set in the south of France, replete with upper-class twits, social climbers and a central mystery that becomes more provocative by the minute.

Actually, Allen’s cheeky, dialogue-heavy script would make a marvelous play; aside from a few of cinematographer Darius Khondji’s luxurious overviews of the opulent Riviera, the action is confined to just a few locales that easily could be reproduced and/or conveyed on a theater stage. On top of which, the story’s second-act kicker would be a bravura delight, live and in person.

Not to mention how much more fun Allen’s razor-sharp verbal duels would be, delivered by actors declaiming mere yards in front of a rapt audience.

But I certainly don’t mean to downplay this project’s equally droll enticements on the big screen, many of which spring from the feisty banter between stars Colin Firth and Emma Stone.

Firth is all but unrecognized at first glimpse, in his “professional” persona as Chinese conjuror Wei Ling Soo, the most celebrated magician of his age. The film opens on a typical performance, highlighted by his famed vanishing elephant trick, and his eye-popping de-materialization from a closed sarcophagus to a chair, visible at all times, at the opposite end of the stage.

Off-stage, though, the magician strips off the robes and make-up to reveal Stanley Crawford, a grouchy, arrogant Englishman with the snooty, insulting manner of an aristocratic boor: a man with absolutely no friends — well, maybe one or two — and a cold-fish fiancée who seems to respect rather than love him.

Firth has a marvelous time with Stanley’s waspish put-downs and supercilious bearing; he’s so cheekily condescending that we can’t help admiring the man’s pompous elocution.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Calvary: Affirmation of faith

Calvary (2014) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, sexual candor, drug use and violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.15.14

This one should be required viewing for all filmmakers, particularly those residing in Hollywood.

During a conversation more candid than they've had for a long time, Fiona (Kelly Reilly)
admits that she'd be shattered if something ever happened to her father (Brendan Gleeson).
Sadly, this comes as disturbing news to the priest, who carries the knowledge of his own,
likely very impending mortality.
Not merely because writer/director John Michael McDonagh has delivered a powerful drama fueled by Brendan Gleeson’s heartbreaking and impeccably subtle starring performance — about which, more in a moment — but because McDonagh flawlessly demonstrates the proper way to breathe complex life into every single supporting character, even those glimpsed only briefly.

Too many lazy screenwriters give us one, perhaps two, maybe even three compelling characters; the rest, invariably, are little more than scenery. Wallpaper with a few lines of dialogue, but certainly nothing approximating actual people.

McDonagh, in great contrast, populates his newest film with what seems an entire small town’s worth of men, women and children who matter. Nor is this merely a function of crafting compelling personalities; McDonagh and casting director Jina Jay also found actors able to breathe life into each of these characters.

Every supporting player is introduced in a vignette that feels like its own mini-movie, with the quiet, sometimes raw power we’d expect from a live stage drama. Half an hour into this film, we’re transfixed, thinking Goodness ... this is how it should be done. And why doesn’t it get done this way more often?

All that said, Calvary is a deeply melancholy and quite disturbing drama that builds to a shattering conclusion: not an easy story to experience, and a difficult film to recommend capriciously.

It’s also a very brave film, with a narrative — and a revelatory point of view — all but ignored at a time when strident media overload indicts people and institutions, based on guilt by association.

Father James (Gleeson) is a Catholic priest in the tiny hamlet of Easkey, County Sligo, on Ireland’s craggy, wind-battered West Coast. The rugged pastoral setting, gloriously illuminated by cinematographer Larry Smith, is both verdant and curiously lonely, much of the action taking place against the brooding Knocknarea, a massive, table-shaped hill that dominates this land.

Father James is a good man: benevolent and patient, yet unwilling to suffer fools at all, let alone gladly. His sharply perceptive observations are perhaps his most visible flaw; he resents people who dissemble or otherwise avoid truths — mild or painful — and he’s not shy about saying as much.

The Expendables 3: Way past their prime

The Expendables 3 (2014) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, despite relentless violence, brutality and profanity

By Derrick Bang

What an overcooked, overlong, overloud waste of time.

Any semblance of the modestly clever, “aging Dirty Dozen” scenario — which the first film in this series possessed, to a minor degree, back in 2010 — has been buried in an endless, mindless fusillade of bullets, bombs and badly delivered, grade-Z dialogue.

Little realizing that their mission is about to go pear-shaped, Barney (Sylvester Stallone,
right) leads comrades Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) to
their unscheduled appointment with a notorious arms dealer.
I note star Sylvester Stallone’s credit for this film’s story, with further input from scripters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt. The notion that three whole people were required to write this laughable mess, frankly, defies belief.

Okay, granted, we’re not talkin’ Shakespeare here. This series’ sole raison d’être is to gather a bunch of aging A-, B- and C-level action stars, feed them tough-guy one-liners, and set them loose against some power-mad villain with delusions of world domination. Cue the aforementioned bullets, bombs and badly delivered dialogue.

But the cartoonish qualities, admittedly present back in 2010, have devoured this tedious excuse for a threequel. The first film’s modest efforts at actual characterization — such as Charisma Carpenter’s presence as Lacy, tempestuous wife of Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) — have been jettisoned. Carpenter is a no-show here, as is any layering that might make us care a whit about these anti-heroes.

They’re simply well-muscled point-and-shoot stick figures who have no more actual screen presence in this chaos, than the army of uncredited stunt doubles who actually perform all of these crazed action scenes.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Mel Gibson makes a memorably crazed über-villain as psychotic arms dealer Conrad Stonebanks; Gibson knows how to chew his way through all this nonsense. In great contrast to Stallone’s morose, stone-faced non-performance as primary hero Barney Ross, Gibson enthusiastically embraces every aspect of Stonebanks’ bad-bad self. More power to him.

Newcomer Antonio Banderas also is a hoot as Galgo, an insecure chatterbox who threatens to bore everybody to death with his ceaseless prattle. Banderas’ performance — and patter — are an amped-up echo of his comic voice work as Puss in Boots, in the animated Shrek series; the irony is that this approach succeeds better than most everything else in this pinball machine of a movie.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Hundred Foot Journey: A tasty banquet

The Hundred Foot Journey (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, and quite pointlessly; suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.8.14

This film is as sweetly “old world” as its narrative: unhurried, gently amusing and utterly delectable.

Wanting to atone for his father's most recent prank, Hassan (Manish Dayal, right) bravely
prepares a meal for the notoriously fussy Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). As she gets
ready to taste it, this ritual is observed by her head chef, Jean-Pierre (Clément Sibony),
who knows full well what's about to happen.
Director Lasse Hallström has uncorked another effervescent, food-based fairy tale every bit as enchanting as his 2000 adaptation of Chocolat. That, too, was set in a small French village and based on a charming novel (by Joanne Harris). This new film, adapted by Steven Knight from Richard C. Morais’ equally engaging book, will delight foodies, romantics and those who believe that not all culture clashes must end badly.

And while Hallström’s touch is primarily whimsical, the narrative has a bit of bite, and also a moral that reminds us to follow our hearts ... and that, to quote a certain Dorothy Gale, there’s no place like home.

But while the bulk of Knight’s script is flavorsome, the appetizer-sized prologue is both a mouthful and somewhat difficult to digest. It feels like a massive portion of Morais’ book has been compressed into an abbreviated flashback, showing how the Mumbai-based Kadam family loses its restaurant — and endures horrific personal tragedy — during an unspecified political clash; then moves to London, but finds both the climate and local foodstuffs unappetizing; and subsequently seeks a warmer environment (in both spirit and temperature) during a European road trip.

At which point their vehicle breaks down, fortuitously, outside the quaint little hamlet of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, in the south of France.

“Brakes don’t fail for no reason,” insists patriarch Papa (Om Puri), who views this incident as A Sign, much the way he falls in love with the abandoned former restaurant on the village outskirts. But his family’s efforts to transform this dilapidated wreck into a haven of Indian cuisine — cheekily dubbed Maison Mumbai — are viewed with grim disapproval by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren).

Her Michelin-starred French restaurant, Le Saule Pleureur, is literally just across the country road — 100 feet away — from Papa Kadam’s new venture.

Madame Mallory doesn’t tolerate competition; indeed, she very likely contributed to the failure of the previous eatery across the road. And in a village small enough for her imperious desires to hold sway — much to the distress of the mayor (Michel Blanc, in a small but quite droll part) — the result is all-out war, albeit a skirmish conducted clandestinely, on a battlefield marked by city codes and the local farmers’ market.

A challenge that Papa Kadam embraces with equal enthusiasm.