Friday, July 27, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Imagination run amok

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, child imperilment, disturbing images, brief profanity and fleeting sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.27.12

“In a million years, when kids go to school, they’re gonna know that there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived in the Bathtub with her daddy.”

Hoping to find her mother, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) timidly
descends into the gaily lit central room of a floating brothel: an
environment so completely outside her experience that she can't
help wondering what manner of creatures would inhabit such a place.
Children create their own reality, defined by what they observe and experience, filtered through what they’ve been taught. Circumstances that adults would find dire, instead become great adventures. Absent any education — any sort of training by parents or other mentors — kids will concoct the wildest explanations for the simplest things ... and the most fanciful reasons for the horrific.

The 9-year-old boy of director John Boorman’s semi-autobiographical Hope and Glory views the London blitz as a time of great excitement — an abandonment of discipline and decorum — with each day bringing a new shattered ruin to explore. This viewpoint never is presented as callous or insensitive; the beauty of Boorman’s 1987 drama — the message to be extracted — is that the human spirit triumphs and endures.

The same is true of director Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature: the challenging, opulently mesmerizing and almost defiantly unconventional Beasts of the Southern Wild. Its protagonist — a 6-year-old girl known as Hushpuppy — is a wild child forced to confront our randomly cruel world on her own terms. She is, nonetheless, resourceful, stubbornly proud and unexpectedly perceptive in the manner of children, who often see through the artifice and social barriers erected by adults.

Hushpuppy (played with astonishing ferocity by Quvenzhané Wallis) lives near but not with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a ramshackle Southern Louisiana bayou community known as the Bathtub, situated below a levee that separates them from everything. Hushpuppy resides in her own dilapidated home, cooking herself meals of soup and cat food, firing up a jury-rigged gas stove with an acetylene torch.

Wink lives close enough to summon her for chores and the occasional fried chicken dinner, with leftover scraps distributed to a shared dog and stray livestock mostly left to fend for themselves. Wink’s friends and neighbors congregate at a nearby bar: a building held erect by spit, bailing wire and prayer. These adults are falling-down drunk most of the time, their hard-scrabble lives little more than seeking food, eating it and then drifting into an alcoholic stupor.

The Watch: You definitely don't want to

The Watch (2012) • View trailer
One star. Rating: R, for pervasive profanity, vulgar sexual content, violence and brief nudity
By Derrick Bang

This misbegotten train wreck represents the triumph of a pithy high-concept pitch over common sense, plot logic and artistic integrity.

Having learned that a newly discovered silver sphere is a powerful
alien weapon, our numbnuts heroes — from left, Jamarcus (Richard
Ayoade), Bob (Vince Vaughn), Evan (Ben Stiller) and Franklin (Jonah
Hill) — proceed to blow up all sorts of stuff, accompanied by much
raucous laughter. Sadly, they can't laugh hard enough to make us
viewers believe that any of this dreck is the slightest bit amusing.
The Watch may not wind up as the worst big-studio effort of 2012, but it’ll do until that one comes along.

Words simply fail me. I can’t believe this mess ever started as an actual script; it feels like so-called writers Jared Stern, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg got stoned one evening, jotted wild ’n’ crazy ideas onto pieces of paper, threw them in the air, assembled them randomly and then handed the stack to director Akiva Schaffer, who apparently saw no reason to argue.

Schaffer, it should be noted, was a longtime writer and director — of digital shorts — on TV’s Saturday Night Live. He paused long enough, during that tenure, to direct Andy Samberg in one of 2007’s limpest comedies, Hot Rod. Haven’t ever heard of it? That’s to your advantage; don’t go looking.

At the risk of repeating an old cliché, on the basis of that film and his “work” here on The Watch, Schaffer ain’t fit to direct traffic. Nor would I let him direct me to a market half a block away; he’d undoubtedly get it wrong.

Failed comedies can be egregiously awful, and this one certainly qualifies. The dialogue sounds under-rehearsed; the characters lack continuity or credibility; the plot sorta/kinda stumbles from one scene to the next. As is typical of too many numbnuts “doofus projects” these days, profanity and vulgarity are tossed about like spent condoms — actually one of the many running gags — in the vain hope that such elements can draw laughter. Not because any of the lines are actually funny, but ... just because.

Random dialogue exchanges are reflexively homophobic, racist, sexist and all other –ists that come to mind; about the best that can be said, is that these guys are equal-opportunity offenders.

And as bad as the limp-noodle efforts at slapstick humor are, things get even worse when Christophe Beck’s soundtrack swells with what’s intended to be feigned emotion, for a scene Schaffer apparently hopes will be heartwarming. Gaaahhh...

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: Opulent and ominous

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, and somewhat generously, for intense sequences of violence and action, along with some sensuality and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.20.12

Unlike the cinematic Superman — always portrayed as the true-blue Boy Scout, as honorably American as baseball, motherhood and apple pie — Batman’s on-screen image has changed, depending on whose hand has pulled the strings.

After sneaking into Wayne Manor under false pretenses, and stealing
something from a concealed safe, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway)
believes that she has gotten away clean. Imagine her surprise, then,
when Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) cuts in during a high society
dance and seems to know a great deal about her...
The 1960s Batman was known by his colorfully campy TV series; Tim Burton went operatic and kinky for the late 1980s re-boot.

A generation later, Christopher Nolan’s take on the dark night detective has focused on psychology: the seriously dysfunctional variety. Following the obligatory origin story in 2005’s Batman Begins, Nolan then explored the depths of depravity with 2008’s The Dark Knight. Nobody, but nobody, could fail to be mesmerized by the chilling, capricious evil represented by the late Heath Ledger’s magnificent portrayal of the Joker.

The Dark Knight also displayed a disturbing undertone, with its notion that regular folks, if backed into a corner and frightened badly enough, would squabble and tear out each other’s throats with the ferocity of mad dogs. Nobility, self-sacrifice and God’s grace are granted only to the shadowy warrior heroes of Nolan’s Gotham City; her civilians apparently don’t warrant such lofty virtues.

This is a dreadfully cynical view of humanity, although Nolan — along with frequent scripting collaborators David S. Goyer and Jonathan Nolan — made it play reasonably well in The Dark Knight. Ledger’s memorably scary presence was balanced by glimmers of the good and gentle, notably from Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel, Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent and Gary Oldman’s honest Police Commissioner Jim Gordon.

Surely, then, Nolan would move in a different direction for his wrap-up, with The Dark Knight Rises.

Well ... no.

This storyline is even more dystopian, its view of humanity even more depressing; Nolan and his same two collaborators have populated Gotham City with folks who apparently couldn’t survive without their superheroic totems, and probably don’t deserve to survive, regardless. When things get bad in this saga — and they get very, very bad — the common herd turns ugly and every bit as depraved as Ledger’s Joker.

I’ve always been an optimist, viewing the glass as half-full, when it comes to humanity’s behavior during a crisis; Nolan’s glass apparently is 7/8 empty. If this is his commentary on how the 99 percent would “handle” the 1 percent, we should be grateful he’s not likely to hold public office.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Ice Age: Continental Drift — Warm, witty and quite amusing

Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG, for action peril and mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.13.12

Chris Wedge deserves a great deal of credit.

During the decade since he co-directed Ice Age, back in 2002 , the series has generated three sequels, each of which has been as fresh, funny and visually enchanting as the first film.

Manny, right, watches in horror as he drifts farther away from his
family, with no hope of rejoining them. Diego, left, shares his large
friend's concern; even the usually frivolous Sid understands the
gravity of their situation. Sooner or later, their ice floe will start
to melt...
DreamWorks’ Shrek series (as one other example) hasn’t been nearly as consistent, with the same number of installments; Wedge, his Blue Sky Studios colleagues and their “sub-zero heroes” have scored runs with every turn at bat.

In no small measure, this is because Wedge and his rotating teams of scripters understand the importance of story. Each new film doesn’t feel like a box office-driven remake of the same basic plot elements, as often happens with lesser sequels; the “Ice Age” entries build on each other, forming distinct chapters of a much broader narrative whose limits have yet to be reached.

Plus, Blue Sky’s films are funny. Very funny.

And more than a little subversive.

Way back in the day, Disney’s animated features and cartoon shorts were acclaimed for their lush, painterly animation; backdrops and characters were beautiful, gentle and well-rounded, like a live-action sequence shot with a soft-focus lens. Disney animated scripts, as well, were gentle and family-friendly.

Warner Bros. cartoon shorts, in marked contrast, relied more on jagged lines and harsh angles, which contributed to a more daring tone that complemented the equally edgy and snarky scripts. You’d never find a cross-dressing character in a Disney cartoon, but if it suited a gag to have Bugs Bunny in drag, then the carrot-chomping rabbit would don a dress.

I view the stylistic difference between Pixar and Blue Sky in somewhat the same light. Both companies recognize the all-important blend of strong scripting and eye-pleasing visuals, but approach this recipe with different attitudes. Pixar films, like classic Disney films, are gorgeous to the point of looking frameable, with storylines that are similarly mainstream.

Blue Sky, alternatively, often relies on the same sort of exaggerated sight gags that Warner Bros. employed every time Wile E. Coyote got trapped by one of his own roadrunner-catching gadgets. The best and funniest ongoing example: the many torments and body-disfiguring catastrophes endured by poor Scrat, in his endless search for the next best acorn.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

To Rome with Love: Woody Lite

To Rome with Love (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, and much too harshly, for some sexual candor and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang

Having conquered France — and re-ignited his career, not to mention securing yet another Academy Award, for scripting last year’s Midnight in Paris — Woody Allen continues his European tour with an intermittently charming visit to Italy.

To the mounting horror of Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi, far left), his
stuffy older relatives mistakenly assume that professional call girl
Anna (Penélope Cruz) is his new wife .. and then he's forced to
continue the charade — with Anna's amused assistance — lest the
cat be let out of the bag.
The good news is that, while nowhere near as fresh and clever as Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love nonetheless continues Allen’s pleasantly droll examinations of continental love, and the pursuit of same. His goal isn’t nearly as lofty this time; one gets the sense that these four vignettes — connected solely by location — are modest little pieces that Allen knew couldn’t be expanded into full-length films.

As a result, we have a quartet of short stories, much like his piece (“Oedipus Wrecks”) in the 1989 anthology film, New York Stories. The results here are a bit uneven, ranging from hilarious and sharply observed, to overly talky and mannered in the way that sounds so uniquely “Woody Allen” ... the latter an affectation that may have been extended beyond its sell-by date.

At 112 minutes, To Rome with Love also feels overlong, with two of the segments suffering from visible bloat: not terribly so, but enough to prompt viewer restlessness.

Allen signals his disparate intentions by having the film introduced by a somewhat careless traffic policeman (Pierluigi Marchionne), who proudly extols the virtues of his city, and its many stories. We then meet four different sets of characters, each faced with a crisis of circumstance, existential angst or celestial manipulation.

Newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) have arrived in Rome to begin life together, and so that he can impress his boorish, straight-laced relatives and — through their contacts — secure an upscale job in the big city. But with only hours to spare, Milly sets off to get her hair done, and becomes lost; meanwhile, Antonio is confronted by a prostitute (Penélope Cruz) who shows up at his hotel room by mistake, and then is forced to play his wife when the condescending relations arrive.

To make matters worse, the impressionable Milly wanders onto a film set and finds herself the target of a legendary movie star (Antonio Albanese), who hopes to enjoy her as afternoon delight. And she’s not wholly adverse to the notion; is it so awful, to want to bed a famous film actor?

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man: Keeps on swinging

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.6.12

I dunno about the rest of you, but if a geeky, under-nourished kid in my high school class suddenly made an impossible, ceiling-scratching leap to slam-dunk a basketball with enough force to shatter the backboard — in front of dozens of witnesses, no less — and then, a few days later, media outlets began to report a mysterious, unusually strong and limber “vigilante” prowling the streets of my fair city ... I do believe it’d be fairly easy to connect the dots.

As his new powers begin to kick in, Peter Parker (right, swinging on the
pole) finds that he cannot fully control his movements; hyper-strength
turns intended gentle gestures into savage punches and kicks that
destroy furniture and put holes into walls. This proves helpful, however,
when Peter is set upon by a group of thugs in a subway.
I mean, really; Lois Lane might be excused for her repeated failure to see Superman behind Clark Kent’s glasses, but a gymnasium filled with teenagers will get mighty suspicious when rail-thin Peter Parker pulls off a stunt like that.

As it happens, Peter is cavalier about his newly acquired talents in all sorts of ways, but that’s kinda cool; as this re-booted Amazing Spider-Man repeatedly demonstrates, the whole concept of a “secret identity” isn’t something that would come naturally. This film’s writers — James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves — take a looser, messier approach to the Spider-Man mythos, which better reflects the way an angst-ridden teen might adapt to such a situation.

Or so it seems, anyway.

Andrew Garfield — well remembered from Never Let Me Go and The Social Network — is by far this new film’s strongest asset. His Peter Parker is gangly, clumsy, socially inept and wholly overwhelmed by events completely beyond his comprehension. In short, he’s the perfect dweeb, and therefore an ideal underdog: a kid we hope can get the girl and defeat the villain ... not necessarily in that order.

Garfield stammers, stutters, blushes and evades his way through most conversations and interactions, both as we first meet his hapless, hopeless “normal” self, and later, after being bitten by the radioactive spider that unleashes all sorts of havoc within the poor lad’s body. The immediate result may be increased strength and agility — not to mention “sticky” fingers and toes, the better to scuttle up vertical surfaces — but such newly acquired talents certainly don’t come with an instruction manual.

Watching Garfield’s Peter attempt to adapt to these changes — whether trying to dodge irritated thugs on a subway, or reacting with surprise as his adhesive fingertips yank the keys from his laptop keyboard, making typing all but impossible — is a helluva lot more fun than my embarrassed memory of Taylor Kitsch’s idiotic John Carter trying to make sense of Mars’ lesser gravity, by bouncing like a demented rubber ball.

Although what I’m inclined to call Spider-Man 2.0 more or less follows the core elements of the mythos established by Marvel Comics, this film’s scripters take a few liberties. Thus, the early loss of Peter’s parents is tied somehow to a mysterious research institute called OsCorp, where Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), investigating cross-species DNA as a possible means of regenerating his right arm, once worked alongside Peter’s father.