Friday, April 26, 2013

Pain & Gain: A brawny farce

Pain & Gain (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, for strong violence, gore, profanity, nudity, crude sexual content and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.26.13

Truth really is stranger than fiction.

And sometimes quite a bit more deranged.

Having finally kidnapped Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub, center) after several bumbling
failures, Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg, right) orders the wealthy businessman to start
signing over his assets, while a nervous Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) hopes that
things won't spiral out of control. That turns out to be a vain hope...
In late 1994, a group of bodybuilders based at Miami’s Sun Gym went on a crime, kidnapping, torture and murder spree that was both audacious and utterly beyond belief. Because the gang didn’t collectively share enough brain cells to pass third grade, they were, of course, eventually caught ... thus proving another old adage: We can be grateful that most criminals are so bone-stupid.

The whole gory mess — and I do mean gory — eventually landed in court in early 1998, resulting in the most expensive criminal trial in Dade County history. The case was covered for the Miami New Times by journalist Pete Collins, who also scoured court documents and investigative reports, and interviewed the principal characters, for an extensive three-part series that ran in late December 1999 and early January 2000.

The story is readily available at the New Times website, and makes a jaw-dropping read. Check it out, and I’ll wait for you to get back.

All set? Eyebrows raised to a degree you wouldn’t have thought possible?

Moving on, then...

Director Michael Bay and scripters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have transformed this vicious circus into a hilariously warped dark comedy that signals its intentions with an opening on-screen crawl that reads: “The following story is based on actual events. Unfortunately.”

Yes, several characters and events have been excised for the sake of expediency, and a 10-minute chase toward the end is pure Hollywood nonsense. But the salient details, and the major players, are 100 percent authentic. Unfortunately.

The farcical tone isn’t merely perfect for the material; it’s also a necessary self-defense mechanism, particularly when third-act events stray into the wood-chipper territory of 1996’s Fargo. As these meat-headed lunatics become ever more desperate, this increasingly grim saga remains palatable only because stars Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie are so deliciously, delightfully dumb.

Some viewers will find this tone quite tasteless — making fun of brutal psychopaths, no matter how stupid they are — particularly in the wake of recent events in Boston and Sandy Hook. And several of the actual people victimized by the gang are particularly incensed that their ordeal has been transformed into a jocular burlesque.

Honestly, I’m sympathetic to that view; quite a few of my chuckles were followed by wincing pangs of guilt. But I can’t help admiring the outcome; Bay has delivered an indictment of modern, American-style violence that — to me, at least — makes a much stronger (and far more entertaining) social statement than Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.

The Big Wedding: Should have been annulled

The Big Wedding (2013) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor and brief nudity
By Derrick Bang

Hollywood never learns.

American filmmakers simply can’t remake French comedies, much less French sex comedies. The results are almost always stiff and awkward, the actors rarely comfortable with dialogue and ribald situations that just come naturally to our cousins across the pond.

Ellie and Don (Diane Keaton and Robert De Niro, right), although divorced for years,
agree to fake being married, in order not to offend the deeply conservative Madonna
(Patricia Rae, center left) and her deceptively demure daughter, Nuria (Ana Ayora).
The thing is, Nuria isn't as chaste as her appearance would suggest, and Ellie and Don
aren't as "over" each other as they'd like to believe. One would expect hilarity from
such a premise. One would be mistaken.
We Americans simply ain’t got the necessary je ne sais quoi.

That’s certainly the case with The Big Wedding, which boasts a great cast that is all dressed up, with nowhere to go. Director Justin Zackham’s script is clumsy and under-developed, his characters behaving in ways that are insufficiently justified by woefully thin motivations. Indeed, at 90 minutes, this film feels like a savagely edited “dump job” that Lionsgate chopped up and released in the (probably vain) hope of getting at least one good weekend’s box-office take.

Zackham adapted his film from Jean-Stéphane Bron’s 2006 comedy, Mon frère se marie, which in turn borrows several plot elements from 1978’s classic La cage aux folles. Escalating sexual hijinks revolve around the wedding of a young couple, whose respective families are mismatched: one conservative and demure, the other ultra-liberal and sexually liberated.

In order not to offend the former group, the latter attempt to clean up their act. Sort of. With less than optimal results.

Cue considerable hilarity.

Or that was the plan, anyway, but Zackham too frequently stalls at the comedy gate. Yes, some moments are funny; yes, others are poignant and sweet. But far too many scenes emerge as missed opportunities, thanks in part to a sniggering, frat-boy attitude to the sexual humor: no surprise, since Zackham’s only previous feature credit is 2001’s sex-crazed frat-boy bomb, Going Greek.

Indeed, I can’t imagine why he was entrusted with this assignment. Because he also wrote 2007’s tear-jerking The Bucket List? That certainly didn’t qualify him to direct the likes of Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton and Susan Sarandon ... and, based on the results, he definitely wasn’t ready for the major league.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Oblivion: A sleek, provocative ride

Oblivion (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for action violence, sensuality and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.19.13

Director/co-scripter Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion hearkens back to 1970s sci-fi thrillers that involved lone heroes struggling against horrific situations that weren’t quite what they seemed, at first blush.

Having discovered that somebody — or something — has set up a homing beacon that
is blasting a signal into space, Jack (Tom Cruise) carefully picks his way through the
remnants of the Empire State Building, seeking the source of this unexpected
pocket of technology.
Kosinski and his fellow writers — Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt — definitely caught that vibe. Their film carries strong thematic echoes of Planet of the Apes (the original 1968 version) and The Omega Man, with an added dollop of the psychological tension and heightened paranoia present in The Matrix.

Factor in some rip-snortin’ action sequences — which are freakin’ awesome on a giant IMAX screen — and the result is 126 minutes of clever, well-paced, post-apocalyptic suspense.

Which is not to say that Oblivion is destined to become a classic. Kosinski has a tendency toward overwrought bombast even when unnecessary: such as, for example, a love scene that rises to a frankly silly soundtrack crescendo from composers Anthony Gonzalez, Joseph Trapanese and M.8.3. I’m reminded of Giorgio Moroder’s similarly gaudy scores for 1980s rock-video movies such as Flashdance, Scarface and Top Gun: a suitable musical environment for those popcorn flicks, but not quite the right tone for an otherwise thoughtful sci-fi drama.

Kosinski comes by this style-over-substance tendency honestly, having helmed 2010’s laughably bloated TRON: Legacy. Fortunately, he’s working with a much better premise and narrative here, which can withstand his occasional visual and aural assaults.

The year is 2077, decades after an invading alien armada blew up Earth’s moon as the ultimate first-strike assault; the resulting environmental havoc destroyed civilizations around the globe. But mankind rose to the challenge and beat back the so-called Scavengers, although the cure may have been worse than the disease; thanks to the widespread use of nuclear weapons, most of what remained of Earth became uninhabitable.

Humanity’s remnants constructed a massive orbiting space station dubbed the Tet, from which the survivors hope to mount a massive exodus to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. In pursuit of that grand scheme, Earth’s remaining resources — particularly water — are being extracted by huge, computer-driven factories, and sent to the Tet.

Two-person “monitoring teams” are stationed near each factory, ostensibly to handle any necessary repairs. Unfortunately, pockets of the Scavengers — Scavs — still remain on Earth, and are doing their best to sabotage these operations. In order to help safeguard the repair crews, globe-shaped weaponized “drones” scour the devastated landscape, seeking and eliminating any remaining alien resistance.

Friday, April 12, 2013

42: You know the number

42 (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, profanity and unpalatable language
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.12.13

42 is an unabashed valentine to baseball great Jackie Robinson: an old-style film laden with the sort of calculated sentimentality that Frank Capra delivered back in the day.

Relying on the split-second timing and sprinting ability that have made him a
sensational — and crowd-pleasing — base-stealer, Jackie Robinson (Chadwick
Boseman, left) delights in messing with the minds of pitchers who, after a few rounds
of this, sometimes lose their cool completely.
The pacing is leisurely and graceful, with unhurried takes granting us time to absorb the story and appreciate the performances. Writer/director Brian Helgeland and editors Peter McNulty and Kevin Stitt avoid the staccato pacing and smash-cuts that have become a 21st century norm, preferring instead to let events unfold in a manner that reflects the poetry of baseball itself.

Honestly, I found it quite refreshing.

Although Helgeland has taken pains to be faithful to the firestorm that erupted in 1947, when Robinson became the first player to break Major League Baseball’s infamous color line, the approach here is — at the risk of unintended irony — acutely black and white. All the positive (i.e. progressive) historical figures are extraordinarily virtuous, their memories honored here by behavior that is, for the most part, nothing short of saintly.

The racist crackers, on the other hand, are one-dimensional and mostly anonymous: a redneck sheriff here, a small-town gaggle of thugs there. The one exception, almost startling in a film that until this point has (rather unrealistically) avoided much blatantly racist language, comes from Alan Tudyk’s portrayal of Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman. No doubt Helgeland felt safe with this choice of highly visible villain, since by all accounts the actual Chapman’s on-field behavior was even worse than what we witness here.

But that’s getting ahead of things.

Although characters too good to be true often don’t work in our increasingly cynical age, this film gets its crucial dramatic juice from the sublime lead performance by Chadwick Boseman, an actor, playwright and stage director whose screen work thus far has been confined mostly to TV shows such as Lincoln Heights and Persons Unknown. I suspect that’s about to change, because Boseman never puts a foot wrong here.

It’s difficult to convey the mesmerizing, deeply stirring lightning in a bottle that emanates from a genuinely inspirational person: the breathtaking whoosh that erupts when a truly electrifying individual strides through a door and sucks all the air out of a room. We feel it in the presence of a gifted politician or preacher, or when a commanding actor takes the stage during a live theatrical performance.

Boseman has that sort of presence, and Helgeland coaxes truly fine and sensitive work from this young actor. Boseman’s line readings are heartfelt and well timed, but that’s only part of it; he carries himself in a manner that suggests the brave self-assurance that Robinson himself must have displayed, every waking minute during this tempestuous point in his career.

In a nutshell, Boseman’s performance is inspirational in the same way that Robinson himself must have stirred so many people, back in 1947.

Trance: A puzzle that isn't worth solving

Trance (2013) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rating: R, for graphic nudity, sexual content, profanity, torture, violence and grisly images
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.12.13

Everybody wants to write the next House of Games or Usual Suspects.

Very few writers are as clever as David Mamet and Christopher McQuarrie.

When Simon (James McAvoy, center) loses his memory and can't recall a really, really,
really important detail, the ruthless Franck (Vincent Cassel) insists on securing the
services of hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), who quickly starts
playing both ends against the middle. Or maybe not...
Joe Ahearne and John Hodge, who’ve co-scripted Trance, don’t even come close. With apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, their irritating little thriller is a dream within a dream ... within a dream. And probably within another dream. I’m reminded of the more irritating aspects of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, another drama that tried much too hard to be crafty.

But whereas it was possible to trace all the threads within Inception, and maintain their continuity and interior logic — if only with an Excel spreadsheet — you’ll have no such luck with Trance. The premise invites mistrust right off the bat, and the subsequent behavior of its six primary characters is too daft to be taken at face value.

Which seems to make sense, at times, because we gradually learn that we’re not necessarily supposed to take things at face value. Except, apparently, when we are.

Frankly, I think Ahearne and Hodge just like to jerk us around.

Because Trance is directed by Danny Boyle — the superbly skilled master of both intimate character studies (127 Hours) and riveting ensemble dramas (Slumdog Millionaire) — it is assembled provocatively, from a production standpoint. The various London settings are visually exotic; cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle moves the camera in a manner guaranteed to unsettle and disorient.

The performances are compelling (to a point), the dialogue taut and laced with both latent menace and implied subterfuge (to an excessive point). The story’s prologue, detailing an auction house art heist, has all the adrenalin-surging snap of high-tone caper films such as The Thomas Crown Affair. Rick Smith’s jazz-inflected score builds on the tension.

For a time, we admire the ride and crave more of the same. Sadly, things go pear-shaped all too quickly.

The Place Beyond the Pines: Can't see the forest for the trees

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rating: R, for profanity, violence, brief sexuality and teen drug and alcohol use
By Derrick Bang

What a yawn.

And an unpleasant, bewildering yawn, at that.

Although she should know better, Romina (Eva Mendes) rekindles what couldn't have
been more than a fleeting relationship with Luke (Ryan Gosling) in the first place.
Letting him back into her life makes him believe that he has family obligations, which
in turn prompts a rather desperate means of earning some cash. It's hard to view
this relationship as credible, a problem that infects most of the entire film.
No doubt inspired by Crash, Babel and similar films with interwoven plotlines, director/co-scripter Derek Cianfrance seems to have tried for the same with The Place Beyond the Pines. Unfortunately, he forgot a few key ingredients: engaging characters, credible behavior and a moral center to what rapidly devolves into a pointless muddle.

Ultimately, the gimmick is all that remains: one story that leads to a second, which in turn prompts a third that hearkens back to the first. By itself, that’s a rather slim thread on which to hang an interminable 140-minute film. That’s a lot of time to spend with dull, dreary characters we neither like nor understand.

Worse yet, Cianfrance’s insufferably ponderous style — long, lingering close-ups, great stretches of silence as characters contemplate The Meaning Of It All — screams faux relevance in every frame. One cannot be “deep” simply by wishing it so; the world is littered with the detritus of bad poets who’ve learned that lesson.

Actually, many of them never did learn, much to everybody else’s regret. And the same can be said of pompous filmmakers.

The result in this case is bewildering, given that Cianfrance’s previous effort, the deeply intimate Blue Valentine, delivered the achingly tragic emotional arc that eludes this new film at every turn. Maybe Blue Valentine’s success derives from Cianfrance’s greater comfort with just two central characters; the broader tapestry attempted with The Place Beyond the Pines — terrible title, by the way — seems beyond him.

Cianfrance shares scripting credit with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, and they collectively view human nature the way we might be observed by visitors from Alpha Centauri. Most of the events and subsequent psychological fallout here ring false: as contrived as some of the tin-eared dialogue and angst-y recriminations.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

From Up on Poppy Hill: Young love and simpler times

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

From its very first frame, From Up on Poppy Hill is breathtaking.

You’ll literally gasp at the hand-drawn watercolor lushness of the opening tableau, as the young heroine’s neighborhood is unveiled, her home set high on a hill that overlooks Japan’s Yokohama Port. Computer animation, for all its delights, never looks like this; one must go all the way back to the Walt Disney Studio’s early days, and Snow White or Bambi.

When Umi forgets some ingredients for the evening meal, her new friend Shun offers
to speed her down the hill, in order to reach the market as quickly as possible. The
resulting trip is exciting for its breakneck danger, and also for Umi's close proximity to
a young man she's beginning to care for quite deeply.
Or any of the recent offerings from Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, of course, which deliver the same painstaking level of luxurious quality.

From Up on Poppy Hill — incidentally, Japan’s top-grossing 2011 film — marks the first feature collaboration between the legendary Miyazaki and his son, Gorō; Hayao wrote the screenplay with Keiko Niwa, while Gorō directed. The film is adapted from a 1980 manga series by Tetsurō Sayama (writer) and Chizuru Takahashi (artist); the story is a gentle and poignant coming-of-age saga about a teenage girl who can’t let go of a past tragedy.

Aside from the visual splendor, we’re immediately struck by the fact that this is a real-world period piece. For the most part, animated features are set in fantasy realms that involve magical creatures, talking animals or other mythological tropes. Exceptions, such as 2007’s Persepolis, tend to rely on grim political content.

But while From Up on Poppy Hill certainly has its solemn moments, they result from family secrets and unexpected revelations, rather than complex issues playing out on a broader national or global stage.

The year is 1963, a time of great excitement in Japan, as ambitious plans are made to showcase the country during the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. References to construction and renewal allude to Japan’s emergence from the still-recent horrors of World War II, but the script never calls undo attention to this sobering element.

Nor do the upcoming Olympics have any impact on Umi Matsuzaki (voiced in this American release by Sarah Bolger). The 16-year-old lives in Coquelicot Manor, a boarding house she essentially runs, while caring for her grandmother and two younger siblings, Sora (Izabelle Fuhrman) and Riku (Alex Wolff). Their mother, Ryoko, is studying abroad in the United States; their father was killed in the Korean War.

Every morning before school, Umi rises early to handle various chores and prepare an elaborate breakfast for her family and the manor’s residents. She does the same with each day’s evening meal. We immediately realize that this dutiful young woman maintains an exhausting schedule from before dawn to late at night, while diligently keeping up with her studies.

Her final ritual each morning, before walking to school, is to raise a set of signal flags on the manor flagpole that her (now deceased) grandfather built for her long ago.

The flags’ message: “I pray for safe voyages.”

Friday, April 5, 2013

Evil Dead: Utterly lifeless

Evil Dead (2013) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rating: R, for profanity, strong bloody violence and relentless gore
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.5.13

Teaser posters for Evil Dead insist that it’s “the most terrifying film you will ever experience.”

Bold words, and an audacious claim.

When their attempt at do-it-yourself drug rehab goes awry, our gaggle of nitwits — from
left, David (Shiloh Fernandez), Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) — can't
understand how their off-camera patient, Mia, suddenly seems able to contort her face
and body in decidedly inhuman ways. As the saying goes, characters this clueless
deserve whatever awaits them ... which, in each case, ain't pretty.
And complete nonsense, as well. This pallid remake isn’t the slightest bit scary. It is, instead, little more than a gross, predictable and thoroughly derivative splatter-fest in a horror sub-category that needs to be retired, for at least a decade, in the wake of last year’s vastly superior The Cabin in the Woods.

It’s hard to believe that the idiots populating this storyline — five clueless twentysomethings who obviously don’t share a single brain cell between them — were co-concocted by Diablo Cody, who won a well-deserved Academy Award for scripting 2007’s smart, sassy and savvy Juno.

Then again, Cody similarly insulted viewer intelligence with 2009’s Jennifer’s Body, so it would seem she has a blind spot when it comes to well-executed horror. As in, she couldn’t write the genre to save her career.

But getting back to that boast about “terrifying.”

No less an authority than Stephen King — who knows a thing or two about scary stuff — made the following astute observation in his 1981 nonfiction book, Danse Macabre:

I recognize terror as the finest emotion, and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.

It’s an important distinction. A truly “scary” movie is one that lingers: that sends you home as a quivering mass of goose-flesh, unwilling to turn off the lights and go to bed, unwilling even to hide beneath the covers, for fear of what might stare back when you finally surface to peer around the room. that's “scary.”

King may settle for gross-out, but he always tries for genuine terror; as a longtime reader, I can attest to this.

Far too many of today’s horror filmmakers, in stark contrast, obviously can’t be bothered to try for anything as noble as terror. It’s much too easy to sever limbs, spew bile and toss buckets of blood at the camera lens. As for character development or logical behavior, they’re obviously inconsequential distractions.