Friday, May 24, 2013

Fast & Furious 6: Still accelerating

Fast & Furious 6 (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, and somewhat generously, for intense and relentless violence, action and mayhem, along with occasional profanity and sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.24.13





The Fast & Furious series has long been known for physics-defying stunts that strain credibility, while nonetheless inspiring well-deserved admiration for the way so many of these crazy chases and assorted skirmishes look (somewhat) authentic, as opposed to the obvious fakery of computer-enhanced sweetening. (Make no mistake: CGI plays an important role in these films, but much of the driving is real.)

When a high-speed pursuit veers badly out of control, thanks to the bad guys wielding
a vehicle-crushing tank, Dom (Vin Diesel) realizes that one of his team is seconds
away from certain death. The only possible solution? An insane leap from his speeding
car, of course!
Even by those standards, however, Fast & Furious 6 boasts audacious, jaw-dropping set-pieces that are just plain nuts.

But they’re also tautly edited, reasonably suspenseful and quite entertaining. As comic book movies go, this series delivers ingenious thrills ... even if they are guaranteed to make mechanical and aerospace engineers snort with laughter.

Director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan deserve considerable credit. They’ve collaborated on four of these films now — all but the first two — and they have the formula down cold. Take an ever-expanding “family” of familiar characters, grant them plenty of interactive banter, season with vehicular chases every 15 minutes or so, and blend with aggressive punching matches between good guys and bad guys, usually one on one, but sometimes two on two.

Toss in a James Bondian “head villain” with an equally malevolent sidekick, spice with babe shots — because under-dressed women are such an essential part of street-racing — and call it a movie.

And yes, before you ask: Morgan already is scripting Fast & Furious 7 for new director James Wan (Saw, Insidious), which will add Jason Statham to the mix when it roars into theaters next summer.

It’s all absolute and utter nonsense, but thrilling and adrenaline-pumping nonetheless. No doubt responding to demands for bigger and better, Lin and Morgan have customized 6 with road-rage chases involving all manner of souped-up cars, not to mention a tank and a massive Antonov 124 cargo plane (!). And yes, the latter eye-widening melee, during which half a dozen four-wheeled vehicles try to prevent said plane from lifting off, occupies 15 climactic minutes, during which the accelerating plane magically never runs out of runway.

Heck, even allowing for the cross-cutting needed to show simultaneous action on the ground and inside the plane, I figure that runway must’ve stretched at least 20 miles. Land must be cheap in Spain.

The Hangover, Part III: Out with a whimper

The Hangover, Part III (2013) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rating: R, for pervasive profanity and vulgar humor, some violence, a bit of drug content and some fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang

The third — and presumably concluding — entry in this franchise is nothing like its two predecessors.

Which is quite bizarre. And likely to irritate Wolfpack fans.

Having reluctantly agreed to follow Leslie Chow's (Ken Jeong, center right) scheme for
breaking into his own house, the Wolfpack members — from left, Phil (Bradley Cooper),
Alan (Zach Galifianakis) and Stu (Ed Helms) — study an elaborate model and prepare
to add breaking-and-entering to their already checkered résumés.
I appreciate writer/director Todd Phillips’ desire not to do the same ol’ stuff yet again; in that sense, it’s refreshing to see him try something different. But this particular case of “something different” utterly abandons all the hallmarks that made the two previous films so popular with arrested adolescents.

No abandoned babies or monkeys this time. No out-of-control bachelor parties or Bangkok benders. No chipped teeth, no tattoos. Nothing, in fact, that embarrasses, humiliates, physically tarnishes or debases these guys to any degree.

So what fun is that?

Nobody gets hung over, either ... not from booze, not from drugs, not from anything else.

I must note, in fairness, that a brief post-credits tag scene delivers everything that's missing from the film itself ... so don't depart too quickly. But that's much too little, far too late.

Which makes this film’s title a betrayal, along with its plotline. Phillips and co-scripter Craig Mazin have slipped their characters into the parallel universe of a heist comedy: a detour that, ironically, probably will be viewed as more satisfying to folks who prefer not to wallow in sleaze.

But wallowing in sleaze is the Wolfpack job description. Phillips’ detour here is akin to discovering that one’s most disreputable local fraternity has transformed itself into the epitome of Christian civility.

Well, no; things haven’t gotten that pure. This film’s R rating is well earned for pervasive profanity, because these guys still drop F-bombs the way most of us use descriptive adjectives. And yes, there’s a bit of violence and drug content. And one burst of nudity at a rather unexpected moment.

And a ghastly incident involving a giraffe. And a low freeway overpass.

All that said, though, this still feels like Wolfpack Lite.

Epic: Wishful thinking

Epic (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: PG, and needlessly, for "scary images" and mildly rude language
By Derrick Bang

This is a gorgeously produced animated fantasy, with opulent visuals and a color palette that cleverly reflects the story beats; I’d expect no less from director Chris Wedge and his Blue Sky Studios, the folks who brought us the Ice Age series.

M.K. (voiced by Amanda Seyfried), suddenly responsible for the safety of a pod that
will help preserve the surrounding forest, fends off hilariously unlikely romantic
overtures from Mub (Aziz Ansari), a slug who fancies himself quite the chick magnet.
The impressive voice talent is well cast, with our primary characters granted personality and depth by Colin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, Amanda Seyfried, Chris O’Dowd, Beyoncé and particularly Christoph Waltz, who makes a grand villain.

The dialogue is droll and snarky, with quite a few laughs coming from O’Dowd.

And yet...

Narratively, Epic is curiously flat and uninvolving: far less than the sum of parts that should have worked better than they do. The premise is contrived and scattershot, with bits begged, borrowed or stolen from other, superior fantasy sagas. Waltz’s scenery-chewing malevolence notwithstanding, there’s never a sense of genuine peril: no feeling that our heroes are in any real danger, or that they’ll fail to save the day in the manner foretold in the first act.

The storyline is based loosely on The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs, one of imaginative author/illustrator William Joyce’s many delectable children’s books. Actually, “loosely” still overstates the case; 20th Century Fox has gone out of its way to distance this film from Joyce’s book.

Frankly, all concerned might have done better to follow Joyce’s template more closely, since this script — credited to Tom J. Astle, Matt Ember, James V. Hart and Daniel Shere — is a derivative, disorganized mess. Characters too frequently seem to have been granted screen time — and dialogue — based on the popularity of the star providing the voice, as opposed to reasons relating to plot continuity.

That’s a bass-ackwards approach to filmmaking, and the awkward results are plain.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness: Still voyaging boldly

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense sci-fi action and violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.17.13

Director J.J. Abrams’ audacious 2009 re-boot of Star Trek was clever and wildly entertaining, a delight for both hard-core fans and newcomers. (Do the latter actually exist?)

This follow-up is just as successful ... and perhaps even more fun. While also being deadly serious.

Trapped on a hostile planet at the fringes of the Klingon empire, Kirk (Chris Pine, left),
Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) try to figure out whether a cloaked
and impressively powerful assassin is helping them ... or merely eliminating distractions
in order to kill them himself.
Which is an impressive balancing act.

Considerable credit goes to returning scripters Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, this time joined by Damon Lindelof, who understand that it’s all right to mess with Gene Roddenberry’s original template — here and there — if such adjustments are made respectfully. And if they make sense, both dramatically and in the greater context of established Trek lore.

Thus, Spock’s home planet Vulcan was destroyed in the 2009 film, signaling that the future of these fresh-faced “Young Trek” characters wouldn’t necessarily unfold according to the Holy Writ as laid down by Roddenberry and the various show-runners who augmented the mythos during the subsequent TV shows and films.

On the other hand, blue-eyed Chris Pine’s James T. Kirk remains an unapologetic babe-hound. Some things can't change.

Star Trek Into Darkness opens on the run — literally — as Kirk and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) flee from the enraged inhabitants of Nibiru, a Class M planet (i.e. one that’s Earth-like). Kirk has “liberated” a sacred object as a diversion, while Spock (Zachary Quinto), Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) take a shuttle into a massive volcano, hoping to prevent a cataclysmic eruption that could wipe out the entire civilization.

Despite their efforts to accomplish this clandestinely, Kirk and his crew clearly are violating Starfleet’s sacred Prime Directive, which prohibits any “interference” with a developing culture. (Needless to say, William Shatner’s Kirk violated that directive almost every week, back in the day.)

Regardless of this mission’s outcome — and things definitely don’t go quite as Kirk planned — the brash young Enterprise captain gets a serious dressing-down from mentor Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), once back at Starfleet Command’s San Francisco headquarters. The unhappy result: a demotion and loss of his ship, with Spock assigned elsewhere and the rest of the Enterprise crew left to wonder who they’ll salute next.

Kon-Tiki: Spirited but superficial

Kon-Tiki (2012) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, and needlessly, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

Thor Heyerdahl’s Oscar-winning 1950 documentary about his famed ocean voyage was a frequent attraction during my grade school and middle school years; I must have seen it at least three times before hitting my teens.

Enraged by the constant presence of the always dangerous sharks, Torstein (Jakob
Oftebro, left) and Knut (Tobias Santelmann) foolishly decided to kill one of the
predatory creatures.
I also read Heyerdahl’s published account of the expedition — 1948’s Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft — and noted that articles about him were fairly common in National Geographic in the 1960s and early ’70s (which is deliciously ironic, given the magazine’s initial refusal to treat him seriously).

I therefore approached the new dramatized account of Heyerdahl’s 101-day journey on a balsa wood raft — Norway’s recent nominee for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award (losing to Austria’s Amour) — like a reunion with a long-unseen friend. And, on that level, this new Kon-Tiki does not disappoint.

Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have crafted a respectful, detail-laden account of Heyerdahl’s voyage that plays very much like a valentine: quite similar to the family-friendly tone Brian Helgeland gives Jackie Robinson’s story, in 42. This worshipful atmosphere is amplified by the almost saintly aura that star Pål Sverre Hagen gives his reading of Heyerdahl; once granted the months-at-sea affectation of a scraggly beard, and the Christ-like framing by cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen, we almost expect a halo to appear over Hagen’s head.

OK, so Heyerdahl’s messianic qualities are larded on rather thickly, but I suppose we can forgive everybody concerned; after all, the famed explorer remains one of Norway’s most cherished native sons.

The performances are heartfelt and credible, and the film certainly captures both the adventurous spirit and eventual doubts experienced by Heyerdahl and his five companions, as the journey progresses. But scripter Petter Skavlan is much better at back-story and laying the groundwork for the Kon-Tiki’s trip, than in conveying the day-after-grinding-day reality of their experiences, once the raft is launched.

On top of which, several sequences feel like Hollywood-ized peril, clearly exaggerated for dramatic impact. Such moments give the film an embroidered, boys-own-adventure aura: unfortunate, when an unvarnished depiction of these events should have been sufficiently absorbing.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Great Gatsby: Not mere hyperbole

The Great Gatsby (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor, violence and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.10.13

Teachers have been aggravated for generations, when Hollywood brings a classic novel to the big screen; too many lazy students then seek answers from the film, rather than reading the book.

The pomp and splash of a fancy nightclub cannot prevent Tom (Joel Edgerton, far
right) from noticing that his wife, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), is being wooed shamelessly
by Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, far left). Nick (Tobey Maguire), growing accustomed to
the emotional chaos that inevitably erupts when in the company of his new friends,
adopts his favorite means of retreat: another stiff drink.
Well, here’s a twist: Director Baz Luhrmann’s vibrant, mesmerizing adaptation of The Great Gatsby likely will encourage people to buy and read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel. Rarely has a movie so successfully breathed fresh excitement into a literary work which, no matter how well regarded by scholars, often is regarded as a yawn by readers.

It’s like struggling through Shakespeare’s prose on the printed page, absorbing very little along the way, and then seeing the play come to energetic life when staged with a cast of articulate and charismatic actors.

Yep, Luhrmann’s accomplishment is that impressive.

For openers, the film is a visual masterpiece; it’s literally breathtaking. (Cinematographer Simon Duggan, take a bow.) Never has 3-D cinematography been used so cleverly, or so successfully; the dimensionality opens up the narrative’s symbolic settings, thus lending greater emotional weight to the class-burdened archetypes represented by the five primary characters.

At the same time, Luhrmann and co-scripter Craig Pearce are impressively faithful to Fitzgerald’s original prose, at times bringing large chunks of text to life via the hyper-realism that Luhrmann employed so well in Moulin Rouge.

You’ll not soon forget production designer Catherine Martin’s grandiosely ghastly realization of Fitzgerald’s so-called “Valley of Ashes,” the desolate, begrimed region that separates the decadence of both New York City and the outlying aristocratic enclave of West Egg. (Fitzgerald was inspired by the hellish trash-burning zone along the road from Great Neck to Manhattan, the sole transit in an era before the Long Island Expressway or the Grand Central Parkway.)

Given Luhrmann’s sensibilities and visual pizzazz, it’s easy to imagine him particularly captivated by one element in Fitzgerald’s description of this site: the huge “eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg” that stare out from the remnants of an oculist’s long-discarded billboard. Almost more than Gatsby’s palatial estate — also a spectacular setting — these giant eyes become one of the film’s driving images: the blank stare of an omniscient being who catalogues but does not interfere with the events that take place in the gas station located in a small settlement — not even a town — perched on one edge of this stygian, lung-fouling inferno.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Mud: An earthy, heartfelt character saga

Mud (2012) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for violence, sexual candor, profanity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

Gentle coming-of-age sagas seem an endangered species of late, all but forgotten as studios scramble to spend gazillions on fantasy epics and star-laden comedies.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan, left), his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) and their new
acquaintance Mud (Matthew McConaughey) check their tree's upper branches, trying
to decide whether they'll be strong enough to help a daft scheme succeed. But this
unlikely engineering challenge is the least of Mud's problems; he's wanted by both the
police and a gang of vicious bounty hunters.
That’s a shame, because intimate character dramas delivery some of our strongest movie memories. We’re often touched most deeply by the way we see ourselves in others, particularly during a well-told tale that depicts a familiar struggle for understanding.

Love fuels the action in Mud, a quiet, thoughtful little drama from indie filmmaker Jeff Nichols, who deserves mainstream acclaim for this, his third project (following 2007’s Shotgun Stories and 2011’s Take Shelter). Nichols’ strongest gift is the ability to place us within the world inhabited by his characters, in this case the rapidly vanishing houseboat culture of Arkansas’ Delta region.

Although 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) attend school in the nearby small town — a moribund community characterized by scrap yards, and where hanging out at the Piggly Wiggly is the height of local action — their lives are ruled by the Mississippi River. Ellis and his father (Ray McKinnon, as Senior) spend every morning selling fresh fish to local markets and restaurants; the orphaned Neckbone similarly helps his uncle (Michael Shannon, as Galen) dive for oysters.

At other times, the boys make their own entertainment. The story begins as they head to an island on the Mississippi, where Neckbone has found an amazing thing: a boat suspended high in a tree, a remnant of an extreme flood at some point in the past. Despite its precarious appearance, the boat is wedged quite tightly, and thus appears to be the perfect kid-oriented fort.

Unfortunately, this opinion is shared by Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a gritty, unkempt but personable drifter who already is using the boat as a hideout. The instinctively wary Neckbone doesn’t trust this stranger, but Ellis — more sensitive and trusting — allows curiosity to blossom into interest.

Despite the gun jammed into Mud’s hip pocket.

That notwithstanding, Mud does seem harmless, at least to the boys, and Ellis agrees to bring back some food. The mutual bonding is tentative but deepens quickly during subsequent visits, although Mud remains evasive about the reason for his presence on the island. That changes when Ellis and his mother (Sarah Paulson) chance upon a police roadblock during a routine drive, and learn that Mud is wanted for murder.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Iron Man 3: Ol' Shell-head triumphs again

Iron Man 3 (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense sci-fi action and violence, and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.3.13

Most people eventually develop the wisdom to learn this lesson: Never poke the bear.

Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is quick-witted, ferociously smart and impressively resourceful ... but he also seems to view arrogance and recklessness as virtues. As we’ve seen in this series’ first two installments, such behavior inevitably gets him into trouble.

Stuck in small-town Nowheresville, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) sadly regards the
remnants of his Iron Man outfit, and wonders how he'll handle repairs in a community
that has nothing more than a big-box hardware store. Ah, but Tony is a clever genius,
donchaknow, and he's bound to figure something out. Besides, he's just made a
new young friend (currently off-camera, sent to fetch a tuna sandwich).
As is the case this time.

Giving his home address to a scary terrorist, and then challenging the maniac to do his worst?

Definitely not something Tony could mention when filing the subsequent insurance claims.

But it sets up a rollicking retribution storyline courtesy of director/co-scripter Shane Black, who hasn’t lost the touch he established so well back in 1987, with his debut screenplay for Lethal Weapon. Black clearly understands the formula that has worked so well for the Iron Man franchise: plenty of action, laced with equal opportunities for Downey to get his snark on.

When it comes to cracking wise in the face of serious adversity, Downey’s Tony Stark could give James Bond lessons in well-timed one-liners. Veteran comic book fans may show up for the landscape-shattering punch-outs, but Downey’s the glue that holds these films together.

He persuasively conveys the impatience and frustration of a genius scientist whose ideas come more rapidly than he can act upon them. Downey can weave a tapestry of emotional conflict from a simple sigh of exasperation. He’s the ultimate obsessive/compulsive, and for that reason he’s an improbably endearing character: seriously flawed emotionally, and desperately in need of a keeper.

Too frequently, in times of stress, he turns to his A-I helpmate Jarvis — voiced with mellifluous irony by Paul Bettany — rather than Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), the woman who loves him. And puts up with him. (No small thing.)

Three films into this series, Downey and Paltrow positively bubble with playful erotic tension. They’re one of very few on-screen couples able to honor the deft rat-a-tat banter that hearkens all the way back to William Powell and Myrna Loy, in the 1930s and ’40s Thin Man series. In a word, Downey and Paltrow are fun together, even as we wonder if his self-centered attitude finally has gone too far for her to endure.

Let’s hope that never happens. And while this film does put poor Pepper through seriously unpleasant plot contrivances, romantic doubt isn’t even a blip on the radar.

Indeed, the core of this storyline — Black shares scripting credit with Drew Pearce — involves Tony’s realization that he must always protect the one thing that’s dearest to him. With his back to the wall, with all the chips down, he’s surprised to discover that the choice is obvious: Pepper means far more than all the gadgets his unparalleled wealth can allow him to build.

It must be said, however, that this film gets a bit egregious with respect to Tony’s wealth. He doesn’t just have more money than God; he has more money than God’s banker.

But that’s getting ahead of things.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Company You Keep: The guests exceed their talking points

The Company You Keep (2012) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity
By Derrick Bang

Almost four decades later, Robert Redford continues to flee from The Establishment.

The Company You Keep has some pleasant echoes of 1975’s Three Days of the Condor, particularly during the first act. Granted, this new thriller lacks any sort of spy element, but in both cases Redford’s man on the run must outwit better organized and far more numerous pursuers, while we audience members attempt to solve the twisty mystery that fuels the hunt.

FBI Agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard, left) is quite annoyed by the arrogance displayed
by journalist Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), and even angrier that rookie agent Diana
(Anna Kendrick) apparently allowed her previous relationship with this reporter to
cloud her professional judgment. Somebody's head is about to roll; meanwhile,
long-dormant domestic terrorists continue to elude what Cornelius regards as justice.
The political element is significantly different, however, reflecting a greater maturity on Redford’s part. His CIA researcher in Three Days of the Condor was an undisputed good guy caught in a conspiracy that anticipated the energy crisis: a vividly black-and-white scenario that ultimately made a savior of the great Fourth Estate, and its ability to keep the American public informed about vile doings.

Screenwriter Lem Dobbs’ view of newspaper journalists is a bit more complicated in The Company You Keep, and the political subtext is various shades of gray; indeed, it could be argued that Redford’s character here deserves to be caught and punished. Absolute right and wrong are more difficult to pin down, although confirmed leftists will be cheered by the fact that various good fights still seem worth the effort.

The tone also is agreeable; the shrill preaching that characterized Redford’s previous political drama, 2007’s Lions for Lambs, is largely absent here. Granted, this new film also relies too much on talking heads at times, particularly during a final act that wears out its welcome; some judicious trimming could have made a better-paced drama out of this somewhat self-indulgent 121-minute experience.

That said, it’s hard not to be impressed by the cast Redford assembled (he also directed). You’ll rarely find an ensemble as accomplished as Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Chris Cooper, Stanly Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Brendan Gleeson and Nick Nolte; and tomorrow’s stars are equally well represented by Shia LaBeouf, Brit Marling and Anna Kendrick.

Many of these performers pop up in relatively small roles, which ordinarily might be distracting, or invite an accusation of stunt casting. But everybody perfectly fits their parts, and it’s hard to argue with the results (at least, from an acting standpoint). In that sense, The Company You Keep hearkens back to Hollywood’s golden age, when similarly star-laden casts weren’t all that unusual.