Friday, June 28, 2013

White House Down: Slick summer heroics

White House Down (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for fleeting profanity and relentless action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.28.13

You gotta give ’em credit: Despite an invasion premise that confines the primary characters to the labyrinthine White House interior, this crowd-pleasing action epic manages to work in a car chase.

And a reasonably plausible car chase, at that.

Having worked their way through secret tunnels that lead beneath the White House,
Cale (Channing Tatum, right) and President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) are dismayed to
discover that the bad guys have blocked the way with a complicated bomb. Worse
yet, irritated thugs with guns are right behind them...
Director Roland Emmerich and writer James Vanderbilt actually deserve credit for far more than that. Despite arriving late to this high-profile copycat party, White House Down is superior to spring’s Olympus Has Fallen: a much smarter script, vastly better characters and a superior blend of action and hell-for-leather humor.

THIS is the way I expect our heads of state to behave: defiant and resourceful in the face of death, rather than the cowardly, impotent weenies who populated Olympus Has Fallen.

Granted, both films offer the same sort of quasi-political hokum, but White House Down delivers the (mostly) one-man derring-do with far more style. Despite a self-indulgent running time of 131 minutes, Emmerich and editor Adam Wolfe keep the pace crisp, the tension coiled and the heroics more or less reasonable.

Vanderbilt’s narrative is a series of clever teases, with every small triumph offset by a newly discovered setback; we therefore cheer each cathartic victory while remaining invested in the primary goal that, vexingly, remains out of reach.

Best of all, we have a solid quartet of villains to boo and hiss: a turncoat mastermind and three delectably unscrupulous associates, each playing his part with gleefully malevolent brio. After all, heroes are measured by their adversaries.

John Cale (Channing Tatum), a capable D.C. policeman, is less successful on the home front, having let down his young daughter, Emily (Joey King), once too often. This comes as no surprise to ex-wife Melanie (Rachelle Lefevre), who, while sympathetic, doesn’t put much stock in Cale’s insistence that he’s trying to atone for past mistakes. Emily, also not impressed, prefers to call her estranged father by his first name.

Hoping to recover some ground, Cale scores a second White House pass so that Emily can tag along when he applies for his dream job, as a member of the Secret Service staff assigned to protect President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). Alas, Special Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) also knows too much about Cale’s various character flaws, in part thanks to a long-ago affair with him. She thus denies him the shot.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing: A droll something

Much Ado About Nothing (2012) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for sensuality, subtle sexual candor and fleeting drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.21.13

Fred and Wesley finally got back together, which is pretty cool.

And while the circumstances are rather unusual, they’re no less delightful.

An eavesdropping Beatrice (Amy Acker, foreground) is astonished to overhear details
about how Benedick — elsewhere in the estate — has long adored her ... astonished
because it seems that she and Benedick do nothing but snipe at each other. Ah, but
Beatrice doesn't realize that Hero (Jillian Morgese, center) and the maid are fully aware
that they're being overheard, and are discussing "details" that have been exaggerated
for Beatrice's benefit.
Most filmmakers, after completing principal photography on a massive, gazillion-dollar project, unwind prior to the next step — assembling the director’s cut — by taking calm vacations ...  anything but film-related.

Joss Whedon isn’t most people. Prior to putting the finishing touches on The Avengers — last year’s wildly successful superhero summit meeting — he filled the in-between time by staging an intimate, micro-budget movie at his own Los Angeles home. And, as genre geeks know, when Whedon mounts such a project, he always engages the close friends who’ve become one of Hollywood’s most loyal repertoire companies.

In this case, a 12-day shoot (!) yielded one of the most unusual interpretations of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing ever to hit cinema screens. Lensed in glorious, mood-enhancing black-and-white by cinematographer Jay Hunter, this modern-dress staging nonetheless employs the Bard’s original dialogue — condensed and occasionally tweaked by Whedon — and features faces well-recognized from his various television projects.

Yes, kids; that means Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse.

Thus, my somewhat cryptic opening sentence can be explained by the casting of Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker — Wesley Wyndam-Price and Winifred “Fred” Burke, respectively, on Angel — as Benedick and Beatrice.

Lest you roll eyebrows over the reflexive accusation that Whedon has unleashed a self-indulgent vanity production, well, yes, that’s certainly true. But who can complain, when the results are this entertaining?

To be sure, the initial disconnect is jarring. The setting, clothing and technology clearly are 21st century, which is at odds with the flowery Shakespearean dialogue. The acting style throughout is a bit ostentatious and overly mannered, the performers occasionally mugging for the camera the way a stage actor would pause for a laugh from the audience.

But that “settling in” period can be true of any Shakespeare production, even those that are rigorously authentic. Fifteen or 20 minutes into this film, everything starts to look and sound natural, at which point you’ll simply enjoy the richly contrived romantic entanglements present in one of Shakespeare’s most appealing comedies.

Monsters University: Endearing school daze

Monsters University (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang

Delving into the origins of popular characters can be quite a lark — consider the fun that’s been had with younger versions of Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and the Star Trek crew — and Pixar has uncorked a collegiate charmer with Monsters University.

When an extra-curricular field trip goes awry, the members of Oozma Kappa — from
left, Art, Don, Squishy, Terri/Terry, Mike and Sulley — find themselves being pursued
by Folks In Charge. With few options for escape, our misfits are about to learn an
important lesson: Salvation comes when friends work together.
Spending more time in the imaginatively conceived “monster universe” is delectable enough, and director/co-scripter Dan Scanlon has sweetened the pot by supplying the inside scoop on how monocular-eyed Mike Wazowski (once again voiced by Billy Crystal) first met bodaciously blue-furred James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman).

Naturally, it’s competitive loathing at first sight. Isn’t that the way all grand friendships are born?

Although this prequel lacks freshness and originality — try as they might, Scanlon and co-scripters Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird can’t replicate the giggly, first-time awe generated by 2001’s Monsters, Inc. — it compensates with a warm-hearted story that extols both the virtues of friendship and integrity, and the all-important notion that diversity is valuable for its own sake.

Yep, even a world littered with crazy-quilt critters isn’t immune to social pecking orders that ostracize misfits and timid outcasts. Scanlon & Co. pull off an impressive trick here: Even though we know the future of this realm’s scare industry — thanks to the first film — this sparkling new adventure of Mike and Sulley sets up innovative adversaries and challenges, while keeping a steady (single) eye on the core message of camaraderie and integrity.

Resourceful as we might be on our own, we’re always stronger when good buddies have our back ... and we have theirs.

We first meet Mike during childhood (voiced with high-pitched, little-kid sincerity, in these early scenes, by Noah Johnston), as a teacher’s pet and correspondingly shunned know-it-all, who nonetheless blossoms during a school field trip to the Monsters Inc. “Scream Floor.” Little Mike is spellbound, as he watches veteran Scarers travel through the magical doors that lead into the bedrooms of unsuspecting Earth children, there to elicit the youthful shrieks and screams that supply the essential power to the Monster Universe.

This, young Mike decides, is what he wants to do in life.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Kings of Summer: This film rules!

The Kings of Summer (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, and rather harshly, for occasional profanity and teen drinking
By Derrick Bang

This is why I love my job.

The Kings of Summer marks an impressive feature debut for director Joran Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta, the latter with nothing more to his credit than a brief 2005 stint as a production staff member for The Late Show with David Letterman. Vogt-Roberts’ résumé includes several shorts and a lot of TV series work, the latter suggesting the hilariously snarky mind set on ample display in this film.

Having more or less completed their new home away from home, our three young
renegades — from left, Joe (Nick Robinson), Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and Biaggio (Moises
Arias) — contemplate the next challenge: putting food on the table. That'll prove far
more difficult than anticipated, since they've no experience with traps, lures, bare-handed
fishing or any other woodsian skills.
Actually, calling this picture “impressive” isn’t nearly strong enough. It’s a sure-fire audience pleaser: one of those so-called “little films” — like Little Miss Sunshine or Juno — guaranteed to take off like a rocket, once word gets out. This year’s enthusiastic Sundance Festival audience certainly thought so, granting a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize (not won, alas).

As a collaborative team, Vogt-Roberts and Galletta demonstrate a striking degree of creative synch; the latter’s dialogue sounds just right coming from the naturalistic ensemble cast, granting a level of verisimilitude that makes these characters feel like the folks next door.

Allowing, that is, for a left-of-center gaggle of eccentrics commonly found in films by Wes Anderson or the Coen Brothers. But I mean that in the gentlest way: However funny the lines, however warped some of the emotional behavior by sidebar adults, this is — first and foremost — an intimate coming-of-age saga.

In the truest sense of the old cliché, we laugh with our young protagonists, not at them.

The contemporary setting is a smallish town in Northeast Ohio, the sort of all-American community that typifies such narratives. Best friends Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso) are strongly bonded, in part, by their inability to cope with utterly impossible parents.

Joe’s father, Frank (Nick Offerman), hasn’t yet recovered from his wife’s untimely death, years earlier. He has become bitter, condescending and imperious: a combination that doesn’t blend well with a teenage son’s instinctive rebelliousness. Joe’s favorite method of revenge, when sufficiently annoyed, is to summon the local law — personified by the competent Capt. Davis (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and her absolutely useless rookie companion (Thomas Middleditch) — on some trumped-up accusation.

Frank responds to such hijinks the way he deals with everybody: angry sarcasm delivered by Offerman with a relentlessly straight face ... which, of course, makes every bile-fueled line that much funnier. (And they’re pretty funny to begin with.)

Joe’s older sister, Heather (Alison Brie), fled the tension-laced home awhile back, although she still visits. That speaks well of the young woman; her choice of male companions, however, does not. Colin (Eugene Cordero) is a misfit who’s as oblivious to social cues, as he is to the fact that Frank constantly winds him up.

In this case, we can hardly blame Frank; Colin’s much too easy a target. Which Heather is aware of, and Brie’s face is an amusing study in conflict: clearly annoyed by her loutish father, but equally embarrassed by her clueless boyfriend.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Frances Ha: Engaging portrait of an unfinished soul

Frances Ha (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang

Slowly but steadily, Greta Gerwig has been crafting wry and thoughtful portraits of today’s self-absorbed millennials ... and, more specifically, those who suffer from what has been branded Failure to Launch.

Mourning the apparent loss of her long-time best friend, Frances (Greta Gerwig) drowns
her sorrows in a good meal with Lev (Adam Driver), a sympathetic guy-pal who offers
the sort of superficial warmth that can obscure emotional pain ... if only briefly. What
Frances hasn't yet learned, though, is that true healing must come from within.
We’ve seen hints in her stand-out supporting roles in the remake of Arthur and Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love. Despite having (I assume) minimal creative control over those projects, and being limited to what those directors and scripts allowed, Gerwig nonetheless delivered an irresistible blend of quirky charm and wary vulnerability. The classic Greta Gerwig character — assuming it’s not too early to brand her in such a manner — always seems slightly out of phase with our world, her expression of cautious bewilderment suggesting that, to her, society and interpersonal relationships always are mildly out of focus.

Gerwig delivered a richer example of such a young woman in last year’s Lola Versus, but her often amiable performance was undone by a frequently cruel and tin-eared script that forced too much self-destructive behavior on a title character who clearly should have known better.

Cue the arrival of Frances Ha, a much more satisfying character study of a wayward New Yorker who — despite good intentions and often painful sincerity — just can’t get her act together. Gerwig had a strong hand in this 27-year-old woman’s development, having shared scripting credit with director Noah Baumbach. (They also worked together on 2010’s unsatisfying Greenberg.) The result feels far more credibly authentic than the erratic nitwit in Lola Versus.

Frances is the sort of forever flustered individual who will promise to do something, and then let the opportunity slip by; or will insist that she won’t do something, but then will. She’s simultaneously endearing and deeply frustrating, and numerous scenes in this film are uncomfortable and unsettling, as we worry over whether she’ll miss another promising opportunity, or yield to another impetuous, ill-advised decision.

She’s tone-deaf during social occasions, forever saying the wrong thing to the wrong people: not because she’s cruel or thoughtless, but mostly because she simply doesn’t pay attention to relationship cues, whether casual or formal. She’s much too self-absorbed: but, again, not in an unpleasant manner. She’s just ... well ... unfinished, somehow. And helpless to do anything about it.

But Gerwig’s performance is so endearing, and so genuinely sweet, that we can’t help forgiving Frances her many shortcomings (even as we groan over them). Watching her flail during an effort to describe wanting that “magic moment” between two soul mates — when eyes lock from opposite ends of a room, and a quick smile of acknowledgment cements the sort of bond that neither time nor God could disrupt — is poetry in motion. It’s a breathtaking, all-in scene: utterly mesmerizing, for Gerwig’s intensity. Watch how she works every square millimeter of her expressive face, from lips and chin to eyebrows.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Man of Steel: Dull as iron

Man of Steel (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, for brief profanity and vicious, unrelenting violence and destruction
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.14.13

Grim, humorless and unpleasantly brutal.

Not to mention boring and redundant, particularly during the interminable, body-slamming final act.

No fun at all.

Having been punched through half a dozen buildings by an equally super-powered
adversary, our caped hero (Henry Cavill) pauses for breath before returning to the
city-leveling skirmish. At which point, we wonder: With a hero like this, who
needs enemies?
Director Zack Snyder has delivered a Superman film with the nasty, cataclysmic tone he employed so well — and much more appropriately — in 300 and Watchman: a dark, dour mood that also suited Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but is wholly out of place here. No surprise: Nolan shares story credit here with David S. Goyer, with whom he co-wrote those Batman epics. All things considered, then, Snyder, Nolan and Goyer have concocted precisely the sort of Superman we should have expected from them.

I do not approve.

All concerned desperately need to take lessons from Joss Whedon, when it comes to choreographing the real estate-leveling carnage of a melee between super-powered beings. As Whedon proved with The Avengers, he understands the importance of the occasional wink and nod, not to mention his recognition of the fine emotional line between necessary collateral damage and a callous disregard for brutalized civilian bystanders.

Snyder obviously relished the opportunity to envision what it really might be like for a being such as Superman to be tossed through half a mile’s worth of office buildings; the director and his special-effects wizards certainly beat such scenes to death. But, speaking of death, it’s impossible to overlook the hundreds (thousands?) of fragile humans who’d be maimed and killed along the way, as a result of each super-powered punch ... which turns Superman’s “code against killing” into something of a joke.

Hell, he must kill scores of people every time he slams his evil, super-powered adversaries through said buildings. Ironic, then, that his code eventually becomes an important — if ill-defined — plot point.

On top of which, the various Metropolis-shattering skirmishes go on for so long, and thus to such diminishing returns, that they become no more meaningful than watching Godzilla stomp and flatten a miniature cardboard Tokyo in all those 1950s and ’60s Japanese monster flicks.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

This Is the End: Out with a whimper

This Is the End (2013) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rating: R, and quite generously, for pervasive profanity and drug use, violence, gore, relentless crude and sexual content, and impressively graphic nudity (not all of it human)
By Derrick Bang

The devoutly religious are certain to disagree, but this tiresome vanity production is too stupid to be blasphemous.

After Emma Watson re-thinks her ill-advised decision to place her safety in the hands of
half a dozen self-centered horn dogs, she mounts an escape with the help of a handy
axe. Unfortunately, this may be a classic case of leaping from the frying pan and
directly into the fire...
It’s relentlessly vulgar, however, in the arrested adolescent manner that we’ve come to expect when Seth Rogen, James Franco and their homies assemble for “something fun.” In this case, the “fun” comes from playing themselves — no stretch there, since most have been doing that all along — and behaving badly when God proves that the Book of Revelations wasn’t mere biblical filler.

Like so many of today’s limp-noodle, man-boy comedies, This Is the End stretches a mildly amusing concept far beyond the average viewer’s patience. Actually, we know this to be true, since this film is “expanded” from a 9-minute 2007 short titled Jay and Seth Versus the Apocalypse. Honestly, beefing up the cast and adding another 98 minutes (!) did nothing to improve the material.

Although Rogen and Evan Goldberg uncork an impressively apocalyptic third act — they collaboratively wrote and directed this case study in wasted celluloid — one must wade through nearly an hour of tedious, contrived and self-indulgent “banter” in order to get there.

Riffing the stoner culture may have been novel and slightly daring when Cheech & Chong made Up in Smoke way back in 1978, but I’d like to think film comedy has progressed a bit since then. Rogen and Goldberg apparently didn’t get that message, since they clearly believe that merely showing a baggie of weed is enough to prompt a belly laugh.

By the same toke(n), it’s time to declare a moratorium on the faux homoeroticism that seems to pass for “cool” among some of today’s Hollywood types. When Rogen and his fellow “reality stars” aren’t chortling over how blasted they’ve gotten, they trade barbed comments apparently intended to demonstrate their hip, quasi-gayness, while nonetheless retreating to safer hetero territory whenever the tone threatens to become emasculating.

“Safer territory,” in turn, emerges in strained one-liners that make sport of bodily functions: the sort of lowest-common-denominator crudeness that once remained the province of little boys trading bad words behind the woodshed, but now has become something of a badge of pride among today’s lazy comedy writers. It’s apparently shorthand for rugged manhood.

This overworked 21st century cliché hits low ebb here during an ejaculation exchange — merely verbal, I’m happy to report — between James Franco and Danny McBride, which goes on and on and on and on. Constant Companion and I exchanged glances, and the unspoken message was obvious: Seriously? This is what film comedy has descended to?

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Internship: Not worth hiring

The Internship (2013) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, and somewhat generously, for profanity, sexual content and considerable crude humor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.7.13

Fans hoping that a reunion with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson means another hilarious raunch-fest — along the lines of Wedding Crashers — are in for a major disappointment.

Having forsaken IQ-busting challenges for one evening, Billy and Nick (Vince Vaughn
and Owen Wilson, far right) take their young colleagues — from left, Yo-Yo (Tobit
Raphael), Stuart (Dylan O'Brien), Lyle (Josh Brener) and Marielena (Jessica Szohr) —
out for an evening of merriment at (where else?) a local strip club. But because this
is a PG-13 film, nobody actually strips...
The Internship is a sweet, gooey, insubstantial and totally forgettable little fairy tale ... with just enough coarse humor to stretch the boundaries of its PG-13 rating, while also compromising the story’s otherwise fluffy tone. Director Shawn Levy clearly doesn’t know how to approach this project; he’s obviously much more comfortable with overly broad slapstick such as Night at the Museum and Date Night.

Levy flails amid this film’s mostly gentle tone, and he further exacerbates the clumsy pacing by s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g this minor giggle far beyond what the material can support. Seriously, two hours? Since when do lightweight comedies need anything beyond 95 minutes?

Yes, Vaughn and Wilson riff each other reasonably well, although I frequently had the impression — glancing at their eyes, and how their lips seemed primed to twitch — that they desperately wanted more profane dialogue. They deliver well-timed rat-a-tat exchanges, although the script — credited to Vaughn and Jared Stern — is both unimaginative and quite redundant.

Indeed, this story delivers at least two “Let’s win this one, kids!” speeches too many.

Additionally — and this is a major problem with many such films — Levy & Co. beat their thin material into submission, vainly trying to turn minor chuckles (at best) into major belly-laughs. All concerned seem to believe that if a scene lingers another minute, or two, or three, that we dense audience members finally will “get” the joke and laugh harder.

Doesn’t work that way. As the old saying goes, Levy and his cast repeatedly flog a dead horse. And, frequently, one that’s already smelling very, very bad.

We meet Billy (Vaughn) and Nick (Wilson) — glib, silver-tongued salesmen who could offload sand on desert sheikhs — just as they learn that their company has folded. Out of work, and for some reason unable (unwilling?) to investigate other sales jobs, they ponder their fate as dinosaurs in an environment where even whip-smart college grads aren’t guaranteed employment.

Nick gets minor sympathy from his sister; Billy gets none from a wife/girlfriend who lingers onscreen only long enough to dump him. Neither actress is seen again, leading us to wonder why we met them at all.