Friday, October 31, 2014

Before I Go to Sleep: A dull, contrived snooze

Before I Go to Sleep (2014) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for violence, pointless profanity and fleeting nudity

By Derrick Bang

This modest thriller opens with an intriguing first act, loses momentum in the second, slides into stupidsville during the climax, and concludes with a sappy epilogue that drew well-deserved snickers of disgust from Wednesday evening’s preview audience.

Truly, a lamentable waste of an A-list cast.

Breakfast is always the worst time of day for Christine Nicole Kidman), for it's when she
 must attempt to absorb two decades' worth of details about a long and happy life spent
with husband Ben (Colin Firth), whom she cannot remember from one day to the next.
UK author S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep was an auspicious debut novel in the spring of 2011, climbing bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic, earning translations in more than 40 countries, and galloping home with two significant crime writers’ awards. I can only assume that the premise and execution worked far better on the printed page than here, via director Rowan Joffe’s screenplay ... although I note that even some of Watson’s complimentary critics complained about his contrived denouement.

Actually, contrived isn’t strong enough. As executed by Joffe — a clumsy scripter thus far known for leaden adaptations of thrillers by Martin Booth (The American) and Graham Greene (Brighton Rock) — this manipulative psychological mystery completely falls apart during post-mortem analysis. It utterly fails the “driving home” test, as unhappy patrons pick apart details and plot element which, in the final analysis, don’t make sense and simply couldn’t happen in the real world.

Which is a shame, because — as a director — Joffe establishes a reasonably tense and unsettling atmosphere as the story begins.

Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) wakes each morning frightened and confused, in a bed, bedroom and house that are wholly unfamiliar, having slept next to a man who appears a total stranger. That would be Ben (Colin Firth), who gently, patiently explains that he’s her husband, and that they’ve been married for years. She doesn’t remember any of this, he continues — quiet despair clouding his eyes, as we realize that he has repeated this well-worn script hundreds (thousands?) of times — because she suffers from psychogenic amnesia, the result of a traumatic traffic accident.

Christine begins each day believing that she’s still a single woman in her 20s, when, in fact, she’s a 40-year-old wife. She can absorb and process information each day — assisted by displays of photos and messages that Ben has posted throughout their house — but she forgets all the “new” information each time she sleeps. And then, the following morning, the whole heartbreaking ritual takes place again.

Kidman is persuasively disoriented, her wary eyes flickering between this man she doesn’t recognize, to the rooms of a strange home that are filled with photographic reminders of years spent with him: wedding and vacation pictures, casual shots of her wearing clothes that hang in the closets ... everything that indicates a long and deliriously happy life at Ben’s side.

Ben heads for work each weekday morning — he teaches at a nearby school — and leaves Christine to re-discover her life, become re-acquainted with her surroundings. By dinnertime each evening, she has come to accept and appreciate how ghastly this is for her: and also for sad, faithful Ben, who clearly hopes that, the following morning, she’ll know who she is without being prompted.

But no; the pattern has remained fixed for years.

Friday, October 24, 2014

St. Vincent: Quite a character

St. Vincent (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for sexual candor, mature thematic content and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.24.14

Bill Murray gets more emotional complexity out of a dangling cigarette, than most actors could generate via three pages of dialogue.

Intending to teach an all-important work ethic to young Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), Vincent
(Bill Murray) orders the boy to mow the yard ... despite the fact that actual blades of grass
are long gone, leaving nothing but dirt and dust behind.
He fires on all cylinders in this cheerfully caustic dramedy from writer/director Theodore Melfi, as polished a feature debut as one could hope for. (While he also co-wrote and directed Winding Roads back in 1999, that never made it past the film festival circuit ... so it doesn’t really count.)

Murray’s sterling presence aside, this film also boasts the best curmudgeon/trusting little boy dynamic since Billy Bob Thornton terrorized young Brett Kelly, in Bad Santa. But this film’s Jaeden Lieberher is a much stronger actor ... in his first film role, no less.

Cranky old coots are a cinematic staple going all the way back to W.C. Fields, who quite notoriously admitted to liking children “if they’re properly cooked.” More recent examples include Jack Nicholson, in As Good As You Get, and Clint Eastwood, in Gran Torino.

The hallmark of a truly sublime performance, however, comes with an actor’s ability to embrace and re-invent a timeworn cliché: to utterly own what once was a stereotype, and make it his own. Murray’s work here is just that sort of revelation.

His Vincent is a crusty, ill-kempt slob who occupies an equally dilapidated house in one of Brooklyn’s fading Sheepshead Bay side streets. An average afternoon involves several losses at the local racetrack, where quietly dangerous loan shark Zucko (Terrence Howard) warns about past-due debts, after which Vincent kills the rest of the day on a well-worn stool at a bar where everybody knows his name. And that he drinks too much.

Meals are an afterthought. The one treasure in Vincent’s life is his fluffy white cat, Felix, who definitely dines better than his master. Even after-hours sessions with his favorite stripper, a Russian “exotic dancer” named Daka (Naomi Watts), are more formality than pleasure; Vincent can’t even be bothered to stop smoking, or remove his clothes, while, ah, doing the nasty.

We’re somehow unsurprised to see that Daka is quite pregnant, not that this has slowed her strip club routines. Much. Yet. Watts has a great time with this feisty role, mangling the English language with straight-faced aplomb. Daka also is the only person who routinely stands up to Vincent, giving as good as she gets.

John Wick: Should be snuffed out

John Wick (2014) • View trailer 
No stars (turkey). Rated R, for relentlessly strong, bloody and gory violence, profanity and brief drug use

By Derrick Bang

Vile, reprehensible trash.

Ineptly scripted, badly directed and atrociously acted by the name “star” — Keanu Reeves — who, as one of this tawdry turkey’s executive producers, likely is the only reason it got made in the first place.

Having reached this point in his vengeance-fueled crusade, Wick (Keanu Reeves) hasn't
killed anybody for at least 5 seconds ... so it must be time to shoot another nameless
thug in the face. Wick does that a lot, to rapidly diminishing returns.
The fact that Reeves keeps getting assignments remains a source of amazement; he can’t emote a lick. Indeed, he makes Clint Eastwood look like Laurence Olivier. Reeves lucked into two popular genre franchises awhile back, Speed and the Matrix trilogy, which granted the illusion of A-list credibility.

But everything else he has touched in the past 20 years has bombed, in most cases with ample cause. Really, now ... have you even heard of Hard Ball, Ellie Parker, Thumbsucker, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Generation Um... or Man of Tai Chi, let alone had the opportunity to actually watch them? Could anything have been worse that his laughably pathetic efforts at romantic leads, in A Walk in the Clouds or the ill-advised remake of Sweet November?

Is it perhaps time to wonder how much better both Speed and the Matrix movies might have been, with a better lead actor?

Reeves never offers anything beyond a grim scowl apparently intended to convey a wealth of emotion. Far from it; he simply seems smug and contemptuous ... and not necessarily within the parameters of the part he’s playing. It looks, sounds and feels more like a deliberate absence of acting: a smirky sense of superiority, as if he’s delighted to once again make a pot of movie for doing no work whatsoever.

I’m not sure which would be worse: that Reeves knows he has scant talent, and keeps trying to fool us into believing otherwise ... or that he truly has no talent at all, but has failed to recognize as much. Still. All these years later.

He also needs to wash his hair more often. And get a better style to begin with.

Sadly, when it comes to no-talent behavior, Reeves has plenty of company in this revolting excuse for a revenge thriller. John Wick is “directed” — and I employ the term in the loosest possible sense — by David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, both of whom have impressively long Hollywood résumés ... as stunt and action coordinators.

Leitch and Stahelski apparently believed that they had learned something, operating under the guidance of other directors for the past two decades.

They believed incorrectly.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Fury: Much too angry

Fury (2014) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity and relentless battlefield violence and gore

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.17.14

Classic World War II movies, absent the cynicism and despair that later infected so many big-screen depictions of the Vietnam quagmire, laced their stories with honor, chivalry, moral fortitude and an absolute respect for the chain of command.

Frightened and badly out of his depth, Norman (Logan Lerman, left) can't imagine that he'd
be of any use to the Sherman tank team led by Wardaddy (Brad Pitt). But this battle-weary
sergeant knows how to inspire his men, even a callow newcomer like Norman, and soon
the kid is executing Nazi scum with the enthusiasm of a seasoned warrior.
The Nazi enemy may have behaved like vicious, amoral swine, but our stalwart boys worked together with courage and righteousness, guided by the innovative strategies of battlefield stalwarts whose ingenuity helped trump sometimes superior forces.

This classic archetype continued for decades thereafter, building to modern classics such as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and HBO’s lavish miniseries, Band of Brothers, both of which gained their power from a rich tapestry of characters about whom we cared very, very deeply.

It would appear that this cinematic model has fallen out of favor.

Writer/director David Ayer’s Fury presents the latter days of the European campaign as the equivalent of an inner-city street fight between drug gangs, with the grunts on our side no better than the animals wearing the Nazi cross. The so-called “good guys” in this unpalatable story seem modeled on the thugs who tortured and humiliated Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib; early on, in fact, we’re granted a sequence of American GIs behaving just that badly with a captured German soldier.

It’s interesting — carrying this observation even further — that this story’s sole act of genuine kindness, of benevolent altruism, is offered by one of those aforementioned Nazi monsters. We could call it dramatic irony, but I’m not willing to give Ayer that much credit.

Three of the five primary characters in this film are one-dimensional brutes granted only a hiccup of actual characterization: superficial affectations implied solely by nicknames such as Gordo, Bible and Coon-Ass.

(Just in passing, I’d love to declare a moratorium on movies with characters who never seem to have real names, but instead are granted stupid monikers better suited to comic book villains. It has become a tiresome and frankly irritating cliché.)

Our other two protagonists, while graced with a bit more presence and personality, aren’t that much more likable ... but we eventually bond with them, to a degree, solely because we’ve gotta care about somebody in this mean-spirited mess.

And “mean-spirited” is this film’s prevailing tone: no surprise, since Ayer is the enraged scripter of nihilistic cop dramas such as Training Day and End of Watch, and earlier this year wrote and directed the offensively deplorable Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, Sabotage. Ayer clearly doesn’t think much of his fellow man, and a little of that contemptuous vitriol goes a long way.

Given this new film’s 134-minute length, that’s a very long way.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Tracks: An incredible journey of the soul

Tracks (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, fleeting profanity and partial nudity

By Derrick Bang

We’ll probably never truly know why 25-year-old Robyn Davidson arrived in central Australia’s Alice Springs in 1975, and then spent two years learning how to train and manage the country’s remarkable wild camels.

No matter how harsh the environment, Robyn (Mia Wasikowska) resolutely rises each
morning and embarks on another daylong trek across the Australian Outback, accompanied
solely by four camels and her faithful dog.
She had endured a childhood marred by disappointment and tragedy — her mother having committed suicide when Robyn was only 11 — so it’s easy to believe that she had personal demons to exorcise, and things to prove to herself.

Nor are we apt to know what then prompted the young woman to embark on an ill-advised solo trek from Alice Springs to where the Indian Ocean lapped against the West Australian coast, accompanied only by four camels and her beloved black dog, Diggity. The 1,700-mile journey across the harsh and unforgiving Australian Outback took nine months, during which she easily could have died any number of times.

Some people embrace such trials for the sheer challenge; as the saying goes, they climb the mountain or cross the desert “because it’s there.” By her own admission, Davidson seems to have undertaken this trip as a journey of personal discovery: a way to become a better version of herself.

“When there is no one to remind you what society’s rules are,” she has said, reflecting back on her journey, “and there is nothing to keep you linked to that society, you had better be prepared for some startling changes.”

The truly remarkable thing is that director John Curran, scripter Marion Nelson and star Mia Wasikowska have managed to bring Davidson’s incredible journey to the big screen with equal emphasis on the glorious, majestically inhospitable Australian Outback itself, and the impact it had on this solitary traveler. Their film is both a beautifully composed glimpse of an often barren and yet beautiful land, and an intimate portrait of an angry young woman trying to find inner peace.

And she is angry, as we first encounter her ... impatient, brittle and quick to take offense, and yet also oddly vulnerable: a duality that Wasikowska conveys quite well. She nails Robyn’s surface contradictions: uncomfortable in the presence of other people, probably to the point of anthropophobia, and yet dependent upon them for jobs, favors and money. And resentful of that same dependence.

And yet when Wasikowska manages one of Robyn’s shy, uncertain smiles, it lights up her entire face: easy to see, then, why she and her unlikely expedition attracted the interest of the National Geographic Society, which agreed to fund her trip in exchange for photographic coverage.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Pride: A British charmer with a lot to say

Pride (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, and quite stupidly, for occasional sexual candor and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.10.14

British filmmakers excel at their signature blend of whimsy, gentle drama, sharp social commentary and (sometimes) misfit romance.

Wrap it around a slice of actual history, and the result can be irresistible.

Mineworkers rep Dai (Paddy Considine, second from right) sympathetically explains the
difficulties inherent in a proposal presented by, from left, Jeff (Freddie Fox), Mark (Ben
Schnetzer), Steph (Faye Marsay), Mike (Joseph Gilgun) and Joe (George MacKay).
Potential discomfort aside, though, Mark and the rest aren't about to let conservative
concerns get in the way of a great idea.
Truly, I think the Brits invented, perfected and patented a wholly unique genre: one that deserves its own name. I vote for Brimsy.

Examples that leap to mind include Calendar Girls, Brassed Off, Kinky Boots, Made in Dagenham and, perhaps the most successful, Billy Elliot. Not yet released on these shores is One Chance; meanwhile, we can enjoy the sweet, charming and frequently funny Pride.

Director Matthew Warchus and first-time scripter Stephen Beresford have set their dramedy against the debilitating 1984 UK mineworkers strike, which pitted stubborn and increasingly desperate blue-collar workers — and their families — against a resolutely defiant Margaret Thatcher. That this grim scenario yielded an unlikely social miracle, back in the day, is surprise enough; better still is the clever, engaging and joyously triumphant manner in which Warchus and Beresford have turned it into a droll, feel-good film.

The action begins as the shy and soft-spoken Joe (George MacKay), 20 years old and deeply closeted, travels from his suburban Bromley home in order to witness a Gay Pride march in London. He can’t help getting swept up by events; before he knows it, he has become part of a small but rowdy cluster of activists who meet regularly at a Soho bookstore run by the wildly flamboyant Jonathan Blake (Dominic West) and his quieter Welsh partner, Gethin (Andrew Scott).

The group is led, more or less, by the charismatic Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer), a hard-charging agitator forever seeking a new means of getting their message across. His newest scheme is purely altruistic: Inspired by newspaper headlines that continue to vilify the striking mineworkers, Mark points out that — sexual orientation aside — their plights are quite similar. Gays know what it’s like to be misunderstood, hated and harassed by jeering figures of authority (i.e. cops).

Why not strike a blow for solidarity, then, by raising funds to help the strikers?

The resulting grass-roots organization — Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) — faces an uphill struggle, first from friends and peers who believe it far more important to raise money for gay rights. But the fledging group persists, only to encounter a bigger problem: No official mineworkers entity wants anything to do with them, regardless of the offered money in hand.

Refusing to be beaten, Mark and his gang bypass union bureaucracy and randomly select the small Welsh mining town of Onllwyn, in the Dulais Valley. They liaise with Dai (Paddy Considine), an uncertain but open-minded resident and local mineworkers rep who agrees to visit London and face the dubious, mildly hostile audience in a gay nightclub.

To everybody’s surprise, Dai’s heartfelt gratitude encourages the crowd, particularly when he mentions that their union symbol — two hands clasped in solidarity — does, indeed, refer to all willing comrades.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: Modest but enjoyable

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, and needlessly, for mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang

Kid-oriented family films seem an endangered species these days, because too many Hollywood execs confuse “sweet” with “stupid.” Most so-called family comedies succumb to the sort of wretched excess and mindless slapstick that very nearly destroyed the Disney studio, back in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Alexander (Ed Oxenbould, foreground left) and his family — from left, Anthony (Dylan
Minnette), Emily (Kerris Dorsey), Ben (Steve Carell), Kelly (Jennifer Garner) and Baby
Trevor — react to the newest calamity during a ghastly day laden with crises.
It really is true: In Hollywood, as everywhere else, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

On top of which, the core premise is flawed: Family films need not rely on the massive destruction of personal property, or on adults made to look inane while in the presence of obnoxious and overly precocious brats. Nor is it necessary to slide into icky sentimentality while delivering a few mellow truths.

Some filmmakers understand this, with the recent trilogy drawn from Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid books being a prominent example. They carefully maneuvered the fine line between genuine humor and dumb farce, between heartfelt emotion and slushy schmaltz.

Director Miguel Arteta and scripter Rob Lieber also get the proper mix, with their big-screen adaptation of Judith Viorst’s popular children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

Full disclosure dictates, however, the acknowledgment that this film shares absolutely nothing with Viorst’s book, aside from its title and core premise. Former kids who remember having the book read aloud to them, back when it was published in 1972, are apt to wonder what the heck happened to their favorite story. And the parents doing the reading are certain to be just as surprised.

Granted, it’s not possible to make a feature-length film from a 32-page picture book; some expansion was essential. But you have to wonder why Lieber messed with details such as Alexander’s two older brothers, who in this film morph into an older brother and sister, along with a bonus infant brother. Part of the original Alexander’s bad day concerned the belittling behavior of his jerky older siblings, whereas Arteta and Lieber go out of their way to emphasize harmony and mutual respect between all members of the Cooper family.

So, okay; that’s a reasonable alternate approach, and it better sets up the calamities that erupt in this very bad day.

To elaborate:

This particular Alexander (Ed Oxenbould, perhaps remembered from the TV series Puberty Blues) endures his personal bad day as something of a prologue, on the day before his 12th birthday. It begins when he wakes up with chewing gum in his hair, and climaxes with a catastrophe in the school science lab, thanks to his efforts to flirt with the girl of his dreams (Sidney Fullmer, appropriately adorable as Becky).