Friday, April 17, 2015

True Story: In their dreams

True Story (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity and disturbing content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.17.15

Bad movies are irritating for all sorts of reasons. Many, easy to dismiss as talentless garbage, aren’t worth fretting about.

Who's playing whom? That's the question at the core of this yawningly dull drama, as
disgraced journalist Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill, left) attempts to get truthful answers during a
series of intimate interviews with accused killer Christian Longo (James Franco).
I get seriously annoyed, though, with the ones that show promise — particularly those with an intriguing premise, and an approach that hints at clever psychological complexity — and then fail to deliver. Utterly.

Those are infuriating, generating a level of hostility that sends viewers grumbling from the theater, wishing it were possible to reclaim those two hours of their lives.

True Story is just such a film.

At first blush, for viewers who approach it cold, the early scenes of director Rupert Goold’s big-screen debut evoke pleasant memories of 1996’s Primal Fear, with its twisty battle of wits between hotshot attorney Richard Gere and the altar boy (Edward Norton) accused to killing a respected Catholic priest.

But True Story isn’t fiction; Goold and co-scripter David Kajganich have based their film on the bizarre events actually experienced by disgraced New York Times journalist Michael Finkel, as recorded in his 2005 book, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa. That shifts this big-screen adaptation into entirely different territory ... although, in the final analysis, the distinction is moot.

It would have been unsatisfying as a fictitious drama, and it’s equally tedious as a wannabe historical record.

I walked away with two strong impressions: 1) Finkel still wants absolution for past sins, and this film ain’t gonna bring him that satisfaction — frankly, nothing should — and 2) stars James Franco and Jonah Hill appear to have viewed this project as a means to establish some “serious actor” cred. They’re doomed to equal disappointment.

This movie’s a stiff: deadly dull, clumsily executed and ultimately maddening. The storyline sets up numerous issues that demand answers, none of them forthcoming. Setting aside any attempt by Goold to achieve artistic ambiguity, the reason for failure is obvious: We’re dealing with two liars. Once this becomes obvious, as the film concludes, we can’t help feeling conned.

Granted, one character may be a pathological liar, as opposed to the one who’s perhaps only an accidental liar — and I stress the “perhaps” — but the result is the same. We’re left in the hands of unreliable narrators: the death of engaging drama.

Monkey Kingdom: Too much monkey business

Monkey Kingdom (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated G, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang

At its better moments, particularly with respect to the harsh caste system practiced by its small toque macaque stars, this new Disneynature docu-drama is an engaging blend of intimate footage and informative commentary.

Our macaque heroine, Maya, is caught during a quiet
moment with her newborn son, Kip. Sadly, keeping that
little guy well-nourished is destined to become a
constant problem.
Sadly, these “earnest” sequences are blended with the sort of contrived, slapstick nonsense that epitomized bad Disney comedies from the late 1960s and early ’70s: the moments when mischievous animals broke into a paint factory, or some poor housewife’s kitchen, and dumped/destroyed all the contents in a ghastly — but always colorful — display of dripping, gooey glop.

I’d have thought Disney had moved beyond such twaddle, particularly given the thoughtful, intelligent approach of its initial nature documentaries: Earth, Oceans, Wings of Life and several others. But no, director Mark Linfield signals his intentions right from the top, as his simian protagonists run, leap and swing into view accompanied by ... Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart’s theme to the 1960s TV series The Monkees, performed by no less than ex-Monkee Micky Dolenz.

The film never fully recovers.

Indeed, such “lighter” elements mock what should have been a serious subject. This ain’t the ’60s any more, folks; informed, sophisticated productions from BBC America and the Discovery Channel have taught us to expect much, much more from nature documentaries.

Yes, toque macaque are cute — in an unusual sort of way — and their behaviors can be hilarious. But that doesn’t justify a trivial tone and unnatural “storyline” that insults our intelligence, while minimizing the very real issues that constantly imperil this species, above and beyond the jealously guarded cliques within a single tribe.

What ... just because they’re monkeys, they don’t merit the same respectful treatment accorded, say, the ursine stars of the Disneynature film Bears? Puh-leaze.

We meet our small, furry heroine, Maya, at the beginning of an average day for her tribe. She endures at the bottom of a rigid social order governed by an alpha male named Raja and his three bitchy concubines, collectively known as “the Sisterhood.” The tribe lives in one of the many deserted ancient cities dotting the northeastern portion of the island nation of Sri Lanka. The stone ruins serve as both playground and sanctuary, as does the commanding “Castle Rock” from which Raja often surveys his domain.

As a “low-born” member of the tribe, Maya must be content with meager leftovers when it comes to food, water and shelter. Raja, his mates and their offspring are privileged to nibble on the ripest figs at the top of their most cherished lunch spot; lesser tribe members are found on the tree’s progressively lower branches, where the figs aren’t as tasty. Maya isn’t even permitted in the tree; she must scavenge discarded bits from the ground below.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

It Follows: A smart, scary little shocker

It Follows (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for disturbing violent and sexual content, graphic nudity and profanity

By Derrick Bang

Young indie filmmaker David Robert Mitchell acknowledges a debt to horror auteurs John Carpenter and George Romero, and it’s easy to see why: Mitchell’s little chiller, It Follows, is suffused with the original Halloween vibe.

And I mean that in the best possible way.

As the full implications of her terrifying dilemma are explained to Jay (Maika Monroe,
center), her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and former boyfriend Greg (Daniel Zovatto) react with
varying degrees of skepticism. Their doubts won't last long...
Mitchell’s film is unsettling and nervous-making, in the manner of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and 1978’s Halloween, both of which emphasized atmosphere over the gratuitous gore they were (somewhat unfairly) accused of spawning in subsequent rip-offs. Mitchell understands the distinction; rather than gross out the audience, he’s far more interested in sending us home with a desire to leave the lights on all night.

Not to mention regarding the next sidewalk-strolling stranger with a worried eye.

For the most part, Mitchell plays this card skillfully: This is a seriously disturbing suburban nightmare, and editor Julio Perez IV knows precisely how to pace cinematographer Mike Gioulakis’ often disconcerting camera set-ups: a slightly wonky angle here, a worrying overhead shot there, a tense tracking shot taking us to the next scene.

Nor does Mitchell cheat, with cats bursting from darkened closets, or potential victims playing nasty tricks on each other. This narrative is scary not because of in-our-face surprises or frenzied assaults, but because of inexorable, slow-moving doom: the horror of ghastly inevitability.

The setting is a dilapidated neighborhood in suburban Detroit, with homes just distressed enough to suggest residents trying their best to maintain appearances, despite rampant unemployment and fractured families. The occasional empty house signifies a battle lost, just as nearby streets leading toward the city pass entire blocks of shattered structures that look more like the aftermath of the London blitz, than any portion of a modern American metropolis.

The actual time, though, feels ambiguous (and deliberately so, I’m sure). Technology exists, but smart phones aren’t ubiquitous; neither are we far enough back to glimpse LPs and turntables. It’s as if time, like suburban renewal, has skipped this particular enclave, which exists in something of a dreamlike haze.

Which is appropriate, given what’s about to happen.

College-age Jay (Maika Monroe) and her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) lead a casual lifestyle with their mother, the latter an alcoholic who barely charts her daughters’ comings and goings. Despite this, Jay and Kelly seem to be reasonably well-adjusted, spending most of their time watching old fright flicks with best buds Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), who has had an obvious crush on Jay for many years.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Danny Collins: A truly delightful tune

Danny Collins (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity, nudity and drug content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.10.15

You have to admire a fact-based film that’s candid about not telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Danny Collins opens with a disclaimer that reads “Kind of based on a true story a little bit.” Gotta love it.

Disgusted by the sell-out, media-hungry clown he has become, Danny (Al Pacino, left)
seriously contemplates ending it all ... little realizing that a most unusual birthday present
from manager and longtime friend Frank (Christopher Plummer) is about to change his life.
As it happens, writer/director Dan Fogelman’s charming dramedy merely “borrows” a minor incident as a jumping-off point for the wholly fictitious saga of an aging rock/pop star who undergoes a life-changing epiphany.

Or so he hopes...

Fogelman has sharp writing sensibilities: an eye for engaging character dynamics, and an ear for the sort of intelligent, witty badinage that we don’t get often enough in today’s movies. After script assists on animated far such as Cars and Tangled, and an endearing solo turn on the under-appreciated TV movie Lipshitz Saves the World, Fogelman made an impressive big-screen writing splash with 2011’s delightful Crazy, Stupid, Love.

His immediate follow-ups — The Guilt Trip and Last Vegas — were somewhat disappointing, in comparison, but Fogelman has kicked back into high gear with Danny Collins, on which he also makes a respectable directing debut. The result is a thoroughly entertaining, character-driven melodrama that grants Al Pacino his best role since his turn as TV journalist Lowell Bergman, in 1999’s The Insider.

He stars here as Danny Collins, a one-time rock wunderkind whose debut album, way back in the day, demonstrated the poetic grace of a Bob Dylan ... but who, during the intervening four decades, has succumbed to the drugs, alcohol and circus-style pomp of his rock-god image, up to and including his hilariously overdone, George Hamilton-style tan.

I hope Neil Diamond has a good sense of humor, because the typical Danny Collins concert extravaganza with which Fogelman opens his film — during which the star belts out his signature anthem, “Hey, Baby Doll,” to enthusiastic audience participation — looks and sounds just like the love-fest that occurs whenever Diamond does “Sweet Caroline” during his shows.

Backstage, the ennui has taken its toll, the years of identically vacuous performances deeply etched into lines of discouragement on Danny’s face. And while he may have more money than God, and all the trappings that wealth can buy — including a sexpot girlfriend half his age (Katarina Cas, as the rarely dressed Sophie) — Danny has become cynical, miserable, bored ... and desperate.

Desperate enough, that the notion of another birthday is giving him thoughts of ending it all.

The Longest Ride: Sweet romantic Sparks

The Longest Ride (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for sensuality, fleeting nudity, dramatic intensity and brief war violence

By Derrick Bang


You gotta hand it to Nicholas Sparks: He certainly knows what sells.

Ten films have been made from his novels, since 1999’s Message in a Bottle, and most have been well received: absolutely indisputable date-bait. No. 11, based on his novel The Choice, already is waiting in the wings for release next year.

Luke (Scott Eastwood) surprises Sophia (Britt Robertson) with a "dinner date" that's
actually an early evening picnic at the edge of a gorgeous shoreline. Could anything be
more romantic?
Some of the more recent big-screen adaptations, though, have suffered from a surfeit of predictable Sparks clichés: the too-precious, meet-cute encounters between young protagonists; rain-drenched kisses; the contrived tragedies; the wildly vacillating happy/sad shifts in tone. Indifferent directors and inexperienced leads haven’t helped, with low points awarded to Miley Cyrus’ dreadful starring role in 2010’s The Last Song, and the on-screen awkwardness of James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan, in The Best of Me.

Which makes The Longest Ride something of a relief, actually, because its stars — Scott Eastwood and Britt Robertson — share genuine chemistry. We eagerly anticipate their scenes together, in part because they occupy only a portion of their own film. In yet another Sparks cliché, this narrative’s other half belongs to an entirely different set of lovers, whose swooning courtship and marriage unfold half a century earlier, as recounted via — you guessed it — a box filled with old letters.

Sparks obviously can’t resist the impulse to cannibalize his own classic, The Notebook ... which, come to think of it, also got re-worked in The Best of Me. Never argue with excess, I guess.

Anyway...

Transplanted big-city girl Sophia (Robertson), a senior majoring in modern art at North Carolina’s Wake Forest University, is inches away from graduation and an eagerly anticipated internship at a prestigious New York gallery. Romance is the last thing on the mind of this serious scholar, until she’s dragged to a bull-riding competition by best gal-pal Marcia (the adorably perky Melissa Benoist, who deserves her own starring role, and soon).

Inexplicably caught up in the suspense of these dangerous, eight-second battles between man and horned beast, Sophia can’t take her eyes off Luke (Eastwood). He’s a former champ on the comeback trail, following a disastrous accident, a year earlier, which left him with A Mysterious And Potentially Fatal Condition.

As is typical of such melodramatic touches, we never learn the exact nature of Luke’s affliction, only that he courts death — more than usual — every time he now gets on a bull. And that he pops pills, presumably pain pills, like peppermints.

Anyway...

Sophia and Luke have nothing in common, and yet they’re drawn together; a hesitant relationship blossoms, despite the certain knowledge that Sophia soon will depart for New York. These early scenes are charming: scripted simply but effectively by Craig Bolotin, and engagingly played by our two leads, who are quite good together. Sophia can’t resist Luke’s polite Southern gentility; frankly, neither can we.

Heading home late one rain-swept night, they come across a crashed car whose elderly driver, Ira Levinson (Alan Alda), is hauled from the wreck just in time ... along with a box he begs Sophia to retrieve. Later, in the calm of the hospital where Ira begins his recovery, Sophia discovers that the box is filled with scores of his old love letters to Ruth, his deceased wife.

Ira’s condition is frail, his mental state approaching surrender. Perceiving that the letters bring solace to this old man, even though his eyesight isn’t up to the challenge of enjoying them himself, Sophia offers to read them aloud: a task she soon embraces on a daily basis.

(I’m not sure how Sophia finds the time for her studies, her relationship with Luke and her sessions with Ira ... but there you go.)

And, thus, we’re swept back to the early 1940s, as a younger Ira (Jack Huston) meets and falls in love with Ruth (Oona Chaplin), a European Jewish refugee newly arrived in the States with her parents. Ira, besotted by this enchanting young woman, can’t believe that such a sophisticated beauty would spare a second glance at a humble shopkeeper’s son, and yet she does. Indeed, Ruth is unexpectedly forward for the era, which certainly adds to her allure.

The parallels are deliberate: Ruth is enchanted by modern art, particularly works produced by the free-thinking students/residents at nearby Black Mountain College. Ira can’t begin to comprehend her fascination with the likes of Willem de Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg, but he’s willing to learn ... just as Luke can’t imagine why anybody would pay thousands of dollars for “a bunch of black squiggly lines on a white canvas.” (Nor can I, for what it’s worth.)

Scripter Craig Bolotin wisely improves upon Sparks’ novel, by more elegantly integrating these two storylines. In the book, the hospital-bound Ira’s earlier life unfolds via “conversations” with his deceased wife; his actual interactions with Luke and Sophia are minimal. Bolotin’s decision to grant Sophia a larger part of Ira’s reminiscences, and to enhance their mutual bond, is far more satisfying.

Back in time, Ira and Ruth’s whirlwind courtship is interrupted by World War II (a segment seriously condensed from Sparks’ novel) and, in its aftermath, A Disastrous Battlefield Injury that has left Ira ... less of a man. Can love endure?

Okay, my snarky tone isn’t entirely fair. Although it’s more fun to spend time with Luke and Sophia, there’s no denying the similarly endearing bond between Ira and Ruth, and our genuine consternation when things go awry. Much of the credit belongs to Chaplin — daughter of Geraldine Chaplin, and granddaughter of the legendary Charlie Chaplin — whose Ruth is a force of nature.

Huston’s young Ira spends much of the film transfixed by Ruth’s very presence, his mouth slightly agape: a mildly amusing and not terribly deep reaction, and yet one we understand completely. She is captivating, and her smile is to die for.

Meanwhile, back in the present, Sophia learns of Luke’s, ah, vulnerability: not from him, but from his worried mother (Lolita Davidovich, calm and understated, which is just right). Cue the usual stubborn response from the Man Who’s Gotta Do What A Man’s Gotta Do; cue the tears, hearts and flowers.

All of which sounds hopelessly maudlin, but ... funny thing: By this point, we’re well and truly hooked by both storylines, and hopelessly invested in their outcomes.

Unless, of course, you haven’t a romantic bone in your body ... which obviously was the case with the two insufferably rude women sitting nearby during Tuesday evening’s preview screening, who giggled derisively during the film’s entire second half. I get it: This is syrupy soap opera stuff, so if that ain’t your bag, don’t buy a ticket. Let the rest of us dreamy suckers enjoy it in peace.

At unexpected moments, and granted just the right camera angle by cinematographer David Tattersall, Eastwood looks and sounds spookily like his old man, during his younger days. It’s uncanny, at times, and this younger Eastwood takes full advantage of the heart-melting smile and luminescent gaze that seem his birthright. The bonus is that he’s a more expressive actor than Clint, if only by a slight margin ... but I’ve no doubt Scott could become a star, given careful judgment of future roles.

The extraordinarily busy Robertson has parlayed considerable television work (most recently the adaptation of Stephen King’s Under the Dome) and big-screen supporting roles into some recent starring vehicles; between this and her high-profile turn in Tomorrowland, due in late May, she’s certain to make this year’s “promising young starlet” lists.

She’s just right here, giving Sophia an initially reserved, bookish wariness that melts persuasively as she throws herself, wholeheartedly and with the ill-advised impetuousness of young love, into this relationship with Luke.

The bull-riding footage is impressive, its authenticity overseen by the film’s association with Professional Bull Riders, with additional heft supplied by cameo appearances from a few PBR world champions. Tattersall and editor Jason Ballantine do impressive work with the riding sequences, which look realistically dangerous ... particularly when it comes to a dread alpha-alpha bull dubbed Rango.

The film’s melodramatic virtues notwithstanding, it’s too damn long; 139 minutes is butt-numbingly excessive for this sort of romantic trifle. At the risk of succumbing to the obvious one-liner, this “ride” would have been more satisfying, had it been shorter.

While We're Young: Sly social commentary

While We're Young (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang

Getting older is difficult enough, in terms of physical and emotional challenges, without having to worry about the need to remain “relevant.”

In the aftermath of a truly silly consciousness-raising experience, Josh (Ben Stiller) and
Cornelia (Naomi Watts) attempt to make sense of the previous evening, to determine
whether any useful insight might have been achieved. Sadly, they've a ways to go before
any genuinely helpful epiphanies.
Perversely, though, that issue has become more challenging in our modern world, with cultural and technological imperatives changing not by the decade, not even by the year, but at times — seemingly — by the month. More than ever before, it feels like only agile young minds have a hope of keeping up.

But is “keeping up” really that important?

Intellectual obsolescence is the core issue of Noah Baumbach’s newest character study, but the writer/director actually has much more on his mind. Part comedy, part drama and all biting social commentary, While We’re Young is a perceptive take on 21st century fortysomethings who worry that life is passing them by ... or, worse yet, long ago left town on the last bus.

Mid-life crises are nothing new, of course; every generation crosses this more-or-less halfway point with varying degrees of the same angst. But Hollywood didn’t really discover the genre until 1955’s The Seven Year Itch, and most of the topic’s classics are more recent: 1973’s Save the Tiger, 1979’s Manhattan, 1999’s American Beauty and 2004’s Sideways come quickly to mind.

While We’re Young definitely belongs in their company. Baumbach has an unerring ear for troubled interpersonal dynamics, dating back to his Oscar-nominated script for 2005’s The Squid and the Whale. That said, some of his subsequent films — however insightful — spent too much time with unpalatable or downright mean-spirited characters; it’s difficult to embrace any message when delivered by, say, the misanthropic title character in Greenberg.

But Baumbach’s approach has been gentler of late, starting with the forlorn misfit played so winningly by Greta Gerwig, in 2012’s Frances Ha. Maybe it’s because Baumbach is gaining maturity not merely as a filmmaker, but also as a person; it can’t be accidental that he’s the same age as his protagonists in While We’re Young, definitely his kindest — and therefore more approachable — film to date.

We meet Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) as they nervously try to interact with a newborn: not theirs, as we quickly discover, but the first child of best friends Fletcher and Marina (Adam Horovitz and Maria Dizzia). As displayed so expressively by Watts — Cornelia tries, but doesn’t quite succeed, to hide her agitation — this moment is a crisis, and not merely because it revives painful memories of their own failed attempts to have children.

No, it’s a crossroads. Just as marriage leaves still-single friends feeling isolated, new parents with kids instantaneously join yet another social clique that simply doesn’t allow for childless members ... no matter how polite the lip-service.

Just like that, Josh and Cornelia feel left out.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Furious 7: Impressively audacious

Furious 7 (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for intense action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.3.15


Somewhere along the way, a modest, inner-city street-racing flick morphed into a turbo-charged, gleefully preposterous Mission: Impossible wannabe.

But with results this entertaining, it’s hard to complain. Even when things get silly.

A shadowy U.S. government agent (Kurt Russell, right) makes Brian (Paul Walker, left) and
Dominic (Vin Diesel) an offer they can't refuse: Retrieve a kidnapped computer hacker, and
in return gain access to information that will allow them to target the vengeful maniac who
keeps trying to kill them.
And rest assured: Things get very, very silly. This is a movie for folks who found the action sequences in 2010’s big-screen version of The A-Team too restrained. (Steering and “flying” a parachuting tank by shooting the big gun, anyone?)

Rarely have I seen so many laws of physics ignored, circumvented and utterly ruptured.

Rarely have so many human bodies demonstrated Superman-level invulnerability.

Rarely has a bad guy taken such a lickin’, only to keep on tickin’.

Rarely have I been less bothered.

But let’s establish our parameters. Furious 7 — newest, biggest and baddest in the surprise franchise built from 2001’s The Fast and the Furious — is by no means classic filmmaking. It’s a live-action Warner Bros. cartoon, with heroes and villains alike remaining as unscathed as the Road Runner’s Coyote, after one of his plunges to a canyon floor, miles below.

We’re talking Guilty Pleasure here, with heavy emphasis on the guilty. But it’s also a pleasure, because there’s no denying director James Wan’s ability to deliver one helluva great ride.

Wan’s predecessor, Justin Lin, reinvigorated the franchise with 2009’s fourth entry, then blasted things into action-flick immortality with his next two chapters. But Wan deserves equal credit for maintaining the momentum and giving us exactly what is expected: audaciously giddy action sequences, ferocious mano a mano fight scenes, and plenty of time with the characters we’ve grown to know and love.

Because yes: This series’ cast is its primo selling point. The brotherly bond between Dominic “Dom” Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) remains paramount, their mutual respect oddly poignant even during circumstances as absurd as these. Dom’s puppy-dog devotion to tough-as-nails Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) is equally touching, despite the soap-opera contrivance of the amnesia that has stricken her memory of their shared love.

Comparative newcomer Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs — who entered the franchise with installment five — grants the team a thin veneer of respectability, with his DDS credentials. On top of which, the oh-so-perfect pairing of Diesel and Johnson is irresistible; they must spend all their time, between scenes, comparing pecs and biceps.

Nor should we overlook the comedy tag-team pairing of Tej (Ludacris) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson), both adept at the verbal comedy relief ... while also reminding us (as if that were necessary) that none of these events are to be taken too seriously.