Friday, March 20, 2015

Two Days, One Night: Every worker's nightmare

Two Days, One Night (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.20.15


This one’s brutal.

Writer/directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have uncorked an absorbing splash of cinema verité that is no less gripping for its low-budget origins: a working-class calamity that feels like it could happen to a friend, a neighbor ... or even you.

Having just learned that she has been voted out of a job by most of her own co-workers,
Sandra (Marion Cotillard, center) persuades the company owner (Baptiste Sornin) to hold
a second ballot. She now has two days, with the help of best friend Juliette (Catherine
Salée), to persuade a majority of their colleagues to change their minds.
The disturbing script is a sly update of classic psychological short stories such as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button.” Both explore the superficiality of morality and personal integrity: the point at which seemingly good people will cave, their ethics forgotten in the face of temptation, reward ... or fear.

The Belgian Dardenne brothers’ Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Two Days, One Night) revolves around a similarly ghastly quandary, in this case as it affects the victim.

We meet Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a working-class Belgian mother, just as she has completed a medical leave of absence. The cause remains unspecified, but clues point to a nervous breakdown of some sort; she’s clearly fragile, emotionally shattered. She’s resting at home, regaining her strength after (perhaps) her first day back at work on the production floor at Solwal, a small company that manufactures solar panels.

The phone rings, with grim news from her co-worker and best friend, Juliette (Catherine Salée). The company owner, Mr. Dumont (Baptiste Sornin), has decided that things have been almost as efficient during Sandra’s absence. Wanting to be “fair,” he has put the matter to a vote among Sandra’s blue-collar colleagues: If they agree to work harder in her continued — permanent — absence, each will receive a bonus of 1,000 Euros.

In other words, if they vote for the bonus, Sandra will be fired.

The vote goes 14 to 2, against. This is the news that Juliette — one of Sandra’s lone supporters — has just called to share, this late Friday afternoon.

Sandra is frantic; she and her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), need their combined incomes to meet mortgage payments on the home they’ve recently purchased, in a triumphant step up from public housing. It’s impossible to chart the profusion of emotions that cross Sandra’s face, as she tries to absorb what has happened, and the implications behind this catastrophe.

Cotillard earned a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for this role, and it’s easy to see why; she slips persuasively into Sandra’s skin. Because of both her performance and the script’s real-world honesty, we quickly forget that we’re watching a drama; it feels much more like a documentary. An awful one, at that.

Insurgent: Incomprehensible

Insurgent (2015) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for intense action and violence, mild sensuality and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang


They’re all blending together.

Dystopian, post-apocalyptic societies cobbled together after some undefined catastrophe, and ruled by corrupt aristocratic elites; resourceful teenage rebels, blessed with special talents, determined to destroy the system, and forced to undergo cruel, violent and flat-out weird mental and/or physical trials; lots of running, jumping, shooting, and killing; the frequently shed tears.

Having been captured by Candor supervisor Jack Kang (Daniel Dae Kim, left), Tris
(Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James, center) propose a "trial by truth" to verify that
they're not civilization-destroying traitors, as has been claimed by the (genuinely) evil
Erudite leader.
I no longer know whether I’m watching the next installment of The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, or The Maze Runner.

And, frankly, I’m losing interest. Been there, endured that.

Sadly, the just-released Insurgent bears the brunt of my apathy, thanks primarily to the clumsy, tin-eared script credited to Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback. They’re a poor substitute for Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, who did a far superior adaptation of last year’s Divergent, the first film in Veronica Roth’s trilogy.

This new film resembles Roth’s second novel in little more than name; great, gaping chunks of exposition and numerous supporting characters have been lost or ignored, and significant plot points have been changed beyond recognition. Not that the narrative has much of a plot to begin with; this film is little more than running and fighting, whether in environments real or imagined.

Indeed, the latter crop up so frequently that it becomes difficult to distinguish whether Tris (Shailene Woodley) is in genuine danger, or being victimized by one of the evil “SIM” (simulation) environments, or whether we’re once again being suckered by another of her own nightmares.

The latter are particularly irritating cheats, and director Robert Schwentke opens with just such a sucker play: a rather blatant indication of the highly disappointing film to follow.

All of which is a shame, because Woodley gave us a particularly plucky, intelligent and engaging Tris in the first film: a heroine worthy of our respect and admiration, as she rallied when confronted by the truth of the world in which she lived. She’s much less admirable in this second outing, reduced to an insecure, reckless and weepy shadow of her former self.

I understand that this is driven, to a great degree, by the subtext in Roth’s second novel: Tris has become plagued by self-doubt, worried that she’s a “curse” to anybody foolish enough to befriend or love her. The crux of her evolution, in this saga’s second chapter, is the necessity of overcoming such anxiety: rejecting this doom-laden view of herself.

Unfortunately, Schwentke overplays the “despair” card; Woodley’s Tris cries too often, and our impatience soon overwhelms all else ... much the way we groaned over how Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss became so uncharacteristically impotent, in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. That just felt contrived and wrong, and the same is true here.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Cinderella: Dreams do come true

Cinderella (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for mild dramatic tension

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.13.15

Doubts notwithstanding — and I had plenty — Disney has done a respectable job, with this live-action update of its own 1950 animated classic.

Ella (Lily James, left), surprised to learn that invitations to the upcoming palace ball will be
extended to every maiden in the realm, wonders how she might escape her stepmother's
clutches, in order to attend. For their part, stepsisters Drisella (Sophie McShera, center)
and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) immediately vow to win the prince's hand in marriage.
Kenneth Branagh’s presence in the director’s chair certainly helps; it stands to reason that the Irish Renaissance man who brought Shakespearean regality to 2011’s Thor could grant (let’s be candid) a fairy-tale trifle with the same degree of dramatic heft.

In lesser hands, Thor could have sunk beneath the weight of its laughably pompous dialogue and overwrought premise ... but no, Branagh gave it class. He does the same here, with this fresh interpretation of Cinderella.

To be sure, he had able assistance, starting with a solid script from writer/director Chris Weitz, still best known for his 2002 adaptation of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Weitz’s take on Cinderella is a little bit Grimm (as in Brothers) and a little bit Disney, with a soupçon of modern feminist sparkle. The resulting narrative is appropriately cheerful, poignant, bleak and swooningly romantic, as needs must.

With respect to the latter, wait until you catch Cinderella’s arrival at the Prince’s ball: Rarely has a character been afforded so splendid an entrance, and rarely has a director milked a scene with such unapologetic oomph.

Which brings us to this film’s young star: Lily James, who makes a flawless Cinderella. She’s eminently believable as an unassuming country lass, albeit one who’s well-read and possesses the perceptive wit of a Jane Austen heroine. At the same time, James “cleans up” marvelously, when a bit of Fairy Godmothering transforms ash-begrimed Cinder-Ella into a breathtaking vision who transfixes all in her presence.

James has a natural ingenuousness that Branagh employs to full effect: the sort of sweet sincerity that Christopher Reeve brought to Superman, when he spoke of fighting for “truth, justice and the American way.” Nobody laughed when Reeve delivered that iconic line; well, nobody laughs here either, when James’ Ella — recalling a promise made years back, to her mother — resolutely insists on facing the world with “courage ... and kindness.”

Pronounced just like that, with a slight pause between the two attributes. Again, the sort of statement that, if delivered even the slightest bit wrong, would prompt snickers from our oh-so-sophisticated 21st century audiences.

Trust me: No laughter erupted during Monday evening’s preview screening (at least, not at that particular moment). Indeed, the audience lapped it up. It would appear that Disney’s current run of “princess power” has yet to subside.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: Second-rate

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG, for mild profanity and sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.6.15

In this particular case, “second best” is ... merely OK.

It’s like visiting a friend you haven’t seen for a few years, only to discover that the friend has changed. And not for the better.

Able — if only for a moment — to forget the various issues plaguing his personal and
professional life, Sonny (Dev Patel, center) reflects on the warm bond he has established
with Muriel (Maggie Smith, at his immediate right).
The set-up is familiar, and therefore offers less of the first film’s delightful sense of discovery; the subplots are more contrived, giving a sense, at times, that all concerned are trying too hard; and Maggie Smith doesn’t get nearly as many of her deliciously piquant one-liners (echoing those she also flings so readily on TV’s Downton Abbey).

At 122 minutes, this sequel also is a bit long, and drags in spots.

Fortunately, familiarity isn’t an entirely bad thing. The entire cast has returned for this second outing, as have writer/director John Madden and co-scripter Ol Parker. They’re all seasoned pros, and while the ground on which they tread may be worn, they nonetheless step with alacrity.

There’s no question that the first Hotel’s success owes much to aging baby-boomers who tire of comic-book movies; we also can point to similarly delightful “aging relic” characters in recent films such as Quartet, Philomena, Pride and even the aforementioned Downton Abbey. Frankly, it’s refreshing to spend time with people who weren’t in diapers a mere decade ago.

That said, Madden and Parker shrewdly hedge their bets by including the much younger Dev Patel, even more familiar now, in the wake of his three-season run on HBO’s The Newsroom His Sonny Kapoor continues to be the hilariously over-enthusiastic glue that binds the residents of his Jaipur-based Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Patel also knows his way around a well-timed line delivery, and Sonny remains much like the dinner guest who invariably embarrasses himself, no matter what the conversational circumstances, by going one ill-advised sentence over the edge.

But poor Sonny endures more than his share of flustered setbacks in the second outing, and Patel struggles gamely to navigate these abnormal waters. That he mostly succeeds has more to do with his skill as an actor, than with the material with which he’s forced to work.

And “forced” seems the operative term. Much of the first film’s dynamic revolved around fish-out-of-water tension: the need for ex-pat Brits to navigate this exotic and wholly alien territory. Well, the territory has become comfortable, which means that Madden and Parker have to pull new narrative tricks out of their hats ... and the strain is noticeable.

Chappie: Too many nuts, not enough bolts

Chappie (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for violence, gore and constant profanity

By Derrick Bang

The best part about Chappie is the title character: not the robot per se, but the marvelous motion-control “performance” given by Sharlto Copley, which was built into a CGI character by the film’s video effects wizards.

Once Chappie falls in with rather evil companions, his "maker" Deon (Dev Patel) tries to
share some important moral imperatives ... such as Thou Shalt Not Kill. But while this
suddenly sentient robot understands the notion of conscience, his "monkey see, monkey do"
tendencies often yield less than ideal results.
We never see Copley on screen, of course, and there’s certainly no way that he could be concealed within this robot’s streamlined mechanical form ... but the actor grants this character a personality, awareness and sense of presence that evoke the similarly brilliant manner in which Andy Serkis brought Gollum to life, in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films.

I only wish that director Neill Blomkamp’s film were the equal of its star.

The South African-born Blomkamp burst on the cinematic scene with 2009’s stunning District 9, a thoughtful sci-fi parable that explored racism, class divides and political skullduggery, while simultaneously building to a rip-roaring climax: a neat trick in all respects.

But Blomkamp has recycled many of the same story elements in subsequent projects, to diminishing returns. Its much bigger budget notwithstanding, 2013’s Elysium played the same narrative card: the violent efforts of an oppressed underclass to rebel against a harsh and long-established social order, with the catalyst being a lone individual who undergoes a spiritual and even physical transformation.

And here we are at Chappie, Blomkamp’s third sci-fi epic, and — as in District 9 — our central character once again is an innocent forced to adapt to horrific circumstances, while unwittingly becoming the face of social upheaval.

This time, though, Blomkamp and co-scripter Terri Tatchell have compounded the sense of déjà vu by borrowing heavily from previous cinema sci-fi. The result too frequently feels like a clumsy blend of Robocop (the 1987 original) and Australian director George Miller’s savage, post-apocalyptic Mad Max series, stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster.

Along with elements that have become Blomkamp clichés after only three films, most particularly the testosterone-enraged, alpha-male villain who comes after our hero with bigger, badder hardware: David James’ Koobus, in District 9; Copley’s Kruger, in Elysium; and now Hugh Jackman’s Vincent Moore, in Chappie. They’re all the same character: unhinged psychopathic thugs. Been there, grimaced at that.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Focus: A sharply conceived caper

Focus (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, sensuality and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.27.15

Heist flicks rely on two essential ingredients: a tight, logical script that holds together even as the narrative veers in unexpectedly twisty directions; and — just as important — a sharply constructed cast of characters, played by actors who approach this material with sincerity and conviction.

Having pulled off yet another successful con, Nicky (Will Smith) and Jess (Margot Robbie)
realize that they make a pretty good team. But their increasing fondness for each other, on
a personal level, threatens the objectivity that's essential in their nefarious line of work...
In other words, actors who don’t preen from one scene to the next, undercutting the tension and suspense we desire from the genre.

Ideal scripts, in turn, need to be clever on three levels: the core storyline — in other words, the actual caper(s) — which should be intriguing, unusual and introduced with zest; the inevitable “unexpected” glitch that complicates matters, and which the filmmakers usually expect us viewers to anticipate; and, finally, the genuinely surprising second twist, which nobody sees coming, and which leaves us nodding with admiration.

Hats off to the writing/directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, then, because Focus delivers on all counts. Heist thrillers are one of my favorite genres; I’ve seen scores of good ones, and therefore usually anticipate all manner of revelations, hiccups and gotchas.

And yet Ficarra and Requa startled me, with their devious, eleventh-hour eyebrow-raiser. Well done.

On top of which, they’ve assembled ideal talent, starting with smooth-as-silk Will Smith, whose every word, deed, gesture and wary expression denote career larceny. He’s perfectly cast as the sophisticated Nicky Spurgeon, a seasoned master of misdirection, who deploys and unerringly supervises a veritable squadron of sharps, pick-pockets and thieves at crowded, high-profile events such as conventions and parades.

Smith is well matched by Margot Robbie’s Jess Barrett, a frisky blonde with a sensual wiggle, who worms her way into Nicky’s crew with the sort of breathy admiration and flirty innocence that Marilyn Monroe perfected, back in the day. Robbie will be remembered as Leonaro DiCaprio’s seductively controlling wife in 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, and let’s just say that she’s equally alluring here.

And just as unpredictable. Indeed, Jess wears “devious” like the slinky, skin-tight dresses into which Robbie gets poured; we can’t help wondering about her end game, from the moment she catches Nicky’s attention.

But, then, we also don’t expect him to be candid with her, so the question revolves around who’s likely to get played, and how quickly.

Meanwhile, Smith and Robbie — both dripping with sensual savoir-faire — circle each other with a playfully erotic grace that wholly eluded the characters in Fifty Shades of Grey.

The Lazarus Effect: Dead on arrival

The Lazarus Effect (2015) • View trailer 
One star. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, horror violence and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang

This is what passes for scary these days?

This laughable, ludicrous swill?

Modern audiences are getting very short-changed.

With his suddenly homicidal fiancée prowling the darkened corridors outside their lab,
Frank (Mark Duplass) cautions Eva (Sarah Bolger) to stay quiet, while he concocts a
silly plan to save the day.
This flaccid rubbish is bad in so many ways, one scarcely knows where to begin. Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater’s irrationally asinine script? David Gelb’s artless, hammer-handed directing? The cast of blithering idiots who couldn’t inject credibility into their dialogue if their lives depended on it?

In fairness, bad line readings aren’t entirely the fault of the cast; nobody could have made this clumsy nonsense sound persuasive. That said, the performances also don’t deserve placement on anybody’s résumé.

At its core, this is just another sloppy re-tread of the hoary Frankenstein saga, with bioengineered chemicals taking the place of good ol’ lightning. This, too, is part of the problem; Dawson and Slater haven’t an original thought between them, and seem content to blatantly rip off vastly superior predecessors.

And they can’t even do that well.

Frank (Mark Duplass) and his fiancée Zoe (Olivia Wilde), running a research lab at a fictitious, Berkeley-based university, are being assisted by graduate students Niko (Donald Glover) and Clay (Evan Peters). The team recently has hired an undergraduate videographer, Eva (Sarah Bolger), to record their progress.

(One cliché of bad writing, by the way, is the affectation of granting people no more than first names: Nothing calls faster attention to wafer-thin, one-dimensional characters.)

Although Eva’s presence gives Gelb an excuse to dabble in “found footage”-style video inserts, this affectation — mercifully — quickly is replaced by Michael Fimognari’s conventional cinematography. Which, to be fair, is a point in Gelb’s favor.

Anyway...

Frank and Zoe apparently obtained their original grant to develop a chemical “boost” that would help revive patients who code on an operating table: something akin to adrenalin or defibrillation. Somewhere along the way, though, they began attempting to resurrect deceased animals with their gloppy white formula; they finally succeed with a dog named Rocky.

Champagne all around.

But Rocky has come back ... ah ... different: warier, stronger and more aggressive. (Cue strong memories of Stephen King’s vastly superior Pet Sematary ... and I mean the book, not the lousy 1989 film adaptation.) Clay spouts the pseudo-scientific gibberish that “explains” this transformation: Thanks to the injected glop, Rocky’s brain is building massive neural networks, moving well past the usual limits of his species. Or some such nonsense.

Not sure why that would make him so violent, but hey, I’m no brain surgeon. (Neither is anybody in this movie. Obviously.)