Friday, May 25, 2012

Men in Black III: Still well-suited

Men in Black III (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for sci-fi action violence and some disgustingly unpleasant monsters
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.25.12

Ten years may have passed, but nothing has changed: same gonzo hardware; same outrageous — and dangerous — aliens; same giddy Danny Elfman score; same stoic, sourpuss expression on Tommy Lee Jones’ face.

Having time-jumped back to 1969, Agent J (Will Smith, right) finds it hard
enough to persuade his partner Agent K's younger self (James Brolin, left) of the
severity of their mission. Things get even more complicated with the arrival of
Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), a hyper-dimensional alien with the ability to see
all outcomes — good and bad — of every possible reality.
Come to think of it, Jones hasn’t changed a jot in a decade. Perhaps he’s actually an alien in disguise?

Men in Black III is a hoot ’n’ a holler, and a welcome return to form after this series’ somewhat disappointing sophomore installment, back in 2002. And while it’s still not possible to recapture the 1997 original’s gleefully warped freshness, this third entry’s writers — Etan Cohen, David Koepp, Jeff Nathanson and Michael Soccio — have done a nifty job with an ingenious premise that stimulates plenty of snarky one-liners.

On top of which, Will Smith’s comic timing remains every bit as reliably droll as Jones’ slow, impassive takes.

The narrative kicks off with a slick jailbreak engineered by Boris The Animal (Jemaine Clement), a truly nasty baddie with a morphology that gets ickier as the film proceeds. Boris — a Boglodite who gets enraged when people add “The Animal” to his name — has been incarcerated on the Moon for the past 40-plus years, where Agent K (Jones) put him after a particularly nasty skirmish at Cape Canaveral, back on July 16, 1969.

If you don’t immediately register the significance of that date, surrender your geek cred card at the door.

With Boris seeking vengeance, Agent J (Smith) tries to pull the file on that old MIB case. Unfortunately, he finds the information restricted: rather mysterious, given his usual security clearance. Attempts to gain access get him nowhere; the new head of MIB, Agent O (Emma Thompson), leaves him with an enigmatic warning: “Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to.”

Funny thing, J reflects; that’s precisely what K has said, on numerous occasions.

(Thompson’s Agent O has taken over for Rip Torn’s Agent Zed, from the previous two films. For some reason, Torn opted out of this installment.)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Battleship: Deserves to be sunk

Battleship (2012) • View trailer
One star. Rating: PG-13, for intense action violence, mayhem and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.18.12

Battleship is a movie for folks who found the Transformers flicks too intellectually challenging.

Alex (Taylor Kitsch), hurled into command when every other senior officer gets
blown up, shredded or otherwise sliced 'n' diced by nasty alien weapons, seeks
inspiration from the screen monitored by Petty Officer Second Class Cora
Raikes (Rihanna). Now, if she'd burst into song, that might improve this dud.
Erich and Jon Hoeber’s laughably moronic plot would make a great discussion topic in a fifth-grade science class, where 10-year-olds would gleefully pick it to shreds. Let’s start with preposterous coincidence, total ignorance of physical reality, and an invading alien force bearing nasty weaponry clearly capable of wiping us off the planet ... except when the script says no, we can’t let that happen in this scene. Just because.

No lie: At times, for absolutely no reason, the massively armed alien warrior ships simply don’t fire upon our sitting-duck ocean vessels. Beats the hell out of me.

I’d call this flick a cartoon, but that’s an insult to animators. And it’s not even a decent comic book movie, because that genre’s writers have been operating at a much higher level of intelligence since, oh, the early 1960s.

But, then, what should we expect from a film based on a board game?

The one-dimensional characters here, so insubstantial that I’d expect them to blow away in a stiff breeze, speak in clipped grunts that would have been retro in the Cro-Magnon age. I truly worry that if one of these folks attempted a three-syllable word, he’d forget the first by the time he reached the third.

Except for the token Scientific Geek, of course, who’s both a technobabble motormouth and a clichéd liberal wimp: We can’t have those pussies getting in the way of real soldiers determined to wipe this alien scum off the face of the Earth. John Wayne — who you’ll recall turned 1968’s The Green Berets into a notoriously pro-Vietnam War screed — would have loved this flick.

Actually, that’s always been one of my many objections to actor-turned-director Peter Berg. Bad enough that he makes dumbed-down nonsense apparently aimed toward trailer-trash intellectuals; he’s also jingoistic and frequently racist. His 2007 take on our American presence in the Middle East, The Kingdom, traded on wincingly offensive stereotypes, while suggesting that the whole problem could be solved if good ol’ American men and women simply shot every “towelhead” in sight.

What to Expect When You're Expecting: Engaging delivery

What to Expect When You're Expecting (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor, profanity and occasional crude references
By Derrick Bang

Nonfiction “personal lifestyle” books are an odd choice to adapt as a film comedy; the results can be unusual, to say the least.

When a married guy is about to become a new father and wants some sage
advice, who's he gonna call? The "Dude Patrol," of course: from left, Gabe
(Rob Huebel), Patel (Amir Talai), Vic (Chris Rock) and Craig (Thomas Lennon).
The most notorious example is Woody Allen’s 1972 handling of David Reuben’s best-selling Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask, but it’s by no means alone. More recent examples include Michele Alexander and Jeannie Long’s 1998 dating manual, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days: The Universal Don’ts of Dating, translated into a so-so romantic comedy with Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey; and Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 parenting guide, Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughters Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence, which became the 2004 Lindsey Lohan vehicle, Mean Girls.

And could anything have been stranger than the 2002 romantic dramedy made from William Powell’s 1970 counter-culture manual for revolution, The Anarchist Cookbook?

This eclectic company now has been augmented by What to Expect When You’re Expecting, a romantic comedy sorta-kinda suggested by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel’s revolutionary 1984 pregnancy manual. The good news is that scripters Shauna Cross and Heather Hach have concocted a reasonably entertaining ensemble comedy in the intertwined-character mode of Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve.

Director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine, Nanny McPhee) capably rides herd on the large cast — most of the time — granting more or less equal exposure to half a dozen sets of characters and divergent narratives, which eventually intersect to one slight degree or another. The result is enjoyable, occasionally hilarious — Chris Rock, in particular, remains one of the funniest guys on the planet — and even fitfully faithful to its source material.

But not perfect. A sidebar trip to Ethiopia, when one couple adopts an African orphan, is much too grim for a movie this frothy; even fleeting glimpses of poverty are enough to snuff the rest of the film’s larkish vibe, despite Jones’ effort to lend dignity through a ritualized adoption ceremony.

Financial means is an issue of concern to a few of these characters, as well, and we never do get closure on the crisis that results when one loses her job. That’s rather sloppy.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Dark Shadows: Toothless

Dark Shadows (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, and somewhat generously, for comic horror violence, profanity, drug use and considerable sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.11.12

The casting is divine, the one-liners are appropriately snarky, and Johnny Depp's slow takes and sidelong glances are, well, to die for.

Young Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) and David (Gulliver McGrath) don't know
what to make of their newly introduced "distant relation," Barnabas (Johnny
Depp), except for the blindingly obvious fact that he's a total square, when it
comes to contemporary (1972) pop culture.
But to quote the heroine of the previous collaboration between Depp and director Tim Burton, this new big-screen take on Dark Shadows isn’t such a much. It’s slow, self-indulgent and — worst of all — rather boring.

Screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith — working from a story he concocted with John August — may have tried too hard to replicate the creaky, somnambulant tone that characterized Dan Curtis’ legendary daytime soap, during its reign from 1966 to ’71. The plot here drifts haphazardly, with disparate elements either left dangling or brought to hurried resolutions that seem anticlimactic (notably, one primary character’s rather abrupt and unsatisfactory demise).

Centuries-old vampire Barnabas Collins (Depp) also demonstrates a rather inconsistent aversion to daylight. In one scene, the slightest touch of sunlight’s dappled rays on his skin prompts smoke and even fire ... and yet he spends much of this storyline wandering about by day (and let’s not pretend his hat offers sufficient protection).

The local citizens of bucolic Collinsport, Maine, also come and go at whim. When the film finally builds to a frenzied-mob climax, Frankenstein-style, everybody — including a squad of cops in several police cars — storms majestic Collinwood Manor. A few eyeblinks later, during a real estate-wrecking battle royale, all these bystanders are gone.

Granted, we get a token clip of cops telling everybody to go home, because “there’s nothing to see here” ... but the logical response to that idiotic remark, at that particular juncture, would have been a defiant “Are you kidding?” from everybody present. Besides which, there’s no reason the cops also would have vanished.

Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.

Sound of My Voice: Needs to be silenced

Sound of My Voice (2011) • View trailer
Two stars. Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor, fleeting nudity and brief drug use 
By Derrick Bang

Brit Marling made a bit of noise on the indie scene last year, as the star and co-writer of Another Earth, a mildly intriguing blend of science fiction and psychological drama that held my attention to its provocative final scene.

When Peter (Christopher Denham) balks at regurgitating the apple he has just
eaten — with good reason; he earlier swallowed a transmitter, to conceal it —
Maggie (Brit Marling) challenges his failure to cooperate with the rest of her
group. Maggie's disapproval begins gently but quickly turns nasty and oddly
personal: merely one of many idiotic segments of psycho-babble twaddle in
this dull and dreary film.
Yes, it was paced languidly — to put it kindly — and Marling’s view of human behavior stretched credibility more than once, but Another Earth definitely packed about an hour’s worth of good storytelling into its 92 minutes: a better average than many films deliver these days.

Her new film, Sound of My Voice — which she co-wrote with its director, Zal Batmanglij — has only about 15 minutes of good storytelling in its 85 minutes. At best, it might have made a medium-decent half-hour episode of Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone.

She’s trending in the wrong direction.

Sound of My Voice is insufferably elliptical: an unfocused story that raises far more questions than it even attempts to address, and which spends most of its time — interminable amounts of time — with a dozen folks enduring the sort of laughable encounter group grope that gives a bad name to therapy sessions.

Not that these sessions are intended to be therapy; it’s closer to the cultish behavior of impressionable acolytes who’ve flocked to a messianic leader. That’s what draws the attention of Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), a couple who turn amateur investigators in order to make a documentary film intended to expose the behavior of an enigmatic young woman named Maggie (Marling).

The story, which unfolds slightly out of sequence, begins as Peter and Lorna submit to removing their regular clothes, taking thorough showers, dressing in hospital gowns and then enduring blindfolds and plastic cuffs on their hands, while being driven God knows where, in order to meet Maggie.

This raises an eyebrow at least a little. I understand that journalists will tolerate much for the sake of a story, but this seems a high threshold of trust for amateur journalists. And that’s actually one of this story’s many problems: We later learn that Peter is a substitute teacher, while Lorna is a former hard-living party girl, now sober, who tries to write novels. They’re “documentarians” only because this script tells us they are; we see absolutely no evidence of former journalistic endeavors.

Which also begs the first big question: Given the secrecy surrounding Maggie and her followers, and the care they take to remain below the radar, how did Peter and Lorna find out about her in the first place?

Uh-huh. It’s that kind of sloppy script.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: Make a reservation

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor and fleeting profanity 
By Derrick Bang 

Change can be difficult — sometimes heartbreaking — even when embraced willingly.

It becomes considerably worse when change is forced upon us.

Evelyn (Judi Dench, left) and Madge (Celia Imrie) bravely embrace the hustle
and bustle of Jaipur, the city where they've elected to spend their "golden years."
Some of their companions, back at the self-professed Best Exotic Marigold
Hotel, lack this adventurous spirit ... which, obviously, is their loss.
During the prologue to director John Madden’s thoroughly charming The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, we meet seven individuals who fear they’ve reached that point in their lives — “of a certain age,” as the fashionably polite suggest — when society deems them irrelevant. Worse yet, all these folks are further burdened by their own personal baggage, in some cases a soul-crushing weight that has dragged them down for decades.

Recently widowed Evelyn (Judi Dench) has just learned, to her humiliation, that her husband left her financially stranded and — by relegating her to the role of “companion” — unable to fend for herself. Graham (Tom Wilkinson), a High Court judge, finally has let cynicism overrule compassionate objectivity. Muriel (Maggie Smith), a fearful, reflexive xenophobe, needs hip replacement surgery.

Singletons Madge (Celia Imrie) and Norman (Ronald Pickup), refusing to gracefully accept their advanced years, continue to seek sexual thrills like thirtysomething sybarites. Tragically, marital bliss died long ago for Jean (Penelope Wilton) and Douglas (Bill Nighy); now she only snipes at him, while he patiently endures.

Fans of British cinema already realize they need read no further; with a cast like this, how could Madden’s adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s These Foolish Things — screenplay by Ol Parker — miss?

It doesn’t, of course. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a gentle reminder that life doesn’t stop at 60; that new experiences are to be embraced, not avoided; that fate truly does reward the brave; and that it’s never too late to make new friends or find new lovers.

Through chance, serendipity and design — and, in Muriel’s case, medical necessity (no waiting time for her surgery) — all these retirees find themselves on the same plane to India, responding to the skillfully worded promise of colorful brochures and come-hither Internet sites extolling the luxurious accommodations of Jaipur’s Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Avengers: Well-assembled

The Avengers (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense sci-fi action and violence 
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.4.12

No doubt about it: This is Whedon season.

With hundreds of scaly, lizard-like outer-space aliens wreaking havoc in New York,
Thor (Chris Hemsworth, left) and Captain America (Chris Evans) find it difficult
to hold their ground. If the invasion is to be stopped, they'll need a miracle ... or
helpful intervention from their other super-powered companions.
A few weeks ago, Josh Whedon helped redefine the entire horror movie genre, with the nefariously clever Cabin in the Woods. Today, he has kick-started the summer movie season with the witty, giddily explosive thrills of The Avengers ... while deftly avoiding the many pitfalls that could have derailed this Summit Meeting of Superheroes.

The biggest challenge comes from stage-managing the antics of half a dozen dynamic Marvel Comics icons, four of whom — Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk — already have their own popular film franchises, complete with established villains, supporting players and running plotlines. This puts considerable pressure on the need to properly showcase each character, while preserving the existing narrative threads and granting sufficient exposure to the comparative newcomers — Hawkeye and the Black Widow — and the “guy in charge” (Nick Fury).

Whedon and co-scripter Zak Penn have done a marvelous job, with a sharp, savvy screenplay that lives up to — and surpasses — expectation.

Penn worked on two X-Men films, along with 1999’s under-appreciated Inspector Gadget; more recently, he co-created television’s intriguing Alphas. Whedon, of course, has a long history with fan-favorite projects that include television’s Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Angel and the criminally short-changed Firefly, which achieved rare closure when he was allowed to write and direct 2005’s big-screen Serenity.

Clearly, Whedon was the right man for this assignment. His take on The Avengers will delight longtime Marvel Comics geeks, while also remaining approachable and entertaining for “uninitiated” viewers who wander into the theater, wondering what all the fuss is about.

The core plot is easy to digest, with the usual arrogant villain who intends to enslave our planet with the assistance of an armada of nasty, deep-space aliens; while the peril is serious, the action allows for plenty of snarky dialogue and the occasional droll sight-gag (as with, in one quick scene, the Hulk’s rather abrupt dismissal of Thor).

At the same time, Whedon isn’t afraid to show some teeth; the eyebrow-raising, Manhattan-devastating carnage includes some grim tidings. Let us not forget that a few beloved Firefly characters perished in Serenity, much to the lamentations of that show’s fans.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Pirates! Band of Misfits: Swashbuckling silliness

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG, and rather pointlessly, for mild rude humor 
By Derrick Bang

With characters dubbed “The Pirate with a Scarf,” “The Pirate with Gout” and “The Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens,” you just know this won’t be a sea saga in the vein of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

Having finally learned why Queen Victoria really wants to purchase his beloved
ship's "parrot," Polly, Pirate Captain discovers that hell hath no fury like a
scorned queen ... and the situation is about to get much worse.
Indeed, Aardman’s The Pirates! Band of Misfits does its best to send up every bit of classic buccaneer lore. We should expect no less from the animation studio that brought us the lovable Wallace & Gromit, and went on to big-screen success with hits such as Chicken Run and Arthur Christmas.

This new film’s deliciously snarky script comes from British author Gideon Defoe, who adapted his own equally whimsical series of (thus far) five books, beginning with 2004’s The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists and continuing through this year’s The Pirates! in an Adventure with the Romantics. Fans cite Defoe as a worthy contemporary of Douglas Adams, Stephen Fry, Jasper Fforde and the Monty Python crew ... which, in turn, makes the Pirates books perfect fodder for the gleeful geniuses at Aardman.

Unlike Arthur Christmas, which was a wholly computer-generated production, The Pirates! Band of Misfits relies almost entirely on the clay animation used for Wallace & Gromit’s adventures. This lends a sense of real-world dimensionality and “warmth” that CGI still can’t quite replicate, along with the equally charming “faults” that result from working with clay: occasional finger smudges, rogue shadows and the “rippling effect” that characterizes some movement.

Then, too, the goggly eyes and pursed, often O-shaped lips are hilarious by themselves; one can’t help being captivated by these characters, and amazed by the numerous complex stage settings for any given scene. We’re sophisticated enough, these days, to recognize and appreciate the painstaking, meticulous, arduous work that goes into something as simple as having six pirates stroll down a London street.

The story begins as the impeccably groomed and luxuriously bearded Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) and his crew make port at a carefully concealed cove, where brigands from all over the world have gathered to compete for the coveted Pirate of the Year Award. The chief contenders are Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), all of whom laugh at Pirate Captain’s interest in the skull-and-crossbones award.

After all, Pirate Captain’s crew hasn’t pillaged much booty, and the bounty for his capture is a mere £12.