Friday, July 26, 2013

The Wolverine: Claws for delight

The Wolverine (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense sci-fi action, mild sensuality and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.26.13

I’ve never understood why critics sharpened their claws so gleefully while savaging 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Few bona-fide actors have inhabited a superhero role with the panache Hugh Jackman brings to this Canadian-born berserker, and that earlier solo adventure was just fine, in my book.

Logan (Hugh Jackman) finds himself helplessly manacled, his claws unable to extend,
as the sinister Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) reveals that this imprisonment is
merely one element of her horrible plans. Still to appear: the dread Silver Samurai.
Sure, it lacked the wit and overall snap of The Avengers, but that’s true of most big-screen superhero epics. The more important observation is that X-Men Origins: Wolverine was far, far better than, say, Daredevil or either Fantastic Four bomb.

And, for the purposes of our discussion, Jackman’s newly released sequel. The Wolverine, is better still.

Writers Christopher McQuarrie, Mark Bomback and Scott Frank focus on the key element of Wolverine’s character: that he’s a modern ronin, a samurai without a lord or master to serve. This definition applies to the X-Men mythos in both comic books and big-screen adaptations, where Wolverine may or may not consider himself part of the team at any given moment, depending on recent events.

Building further on that core, McQuarrie & Co. have constructed a narrative from several of the X-Men/Wolverine comic book story arcs that found our clawed protagonist in Japan, a country that understands and practices the same warrior’s code of honor by which he lives.

Perhaps the surprise success of the big-screen adaptation of Kick-Ass had something to do with this, thanks to that saga’s flamboyant, sword-wielding character of Hit Girl; perhaps it’s mere coincidence. Whatever the reason, we finally get live-action embodiments of Mariko Yashida and Yukio — characters co-created in the Marvel Comics universe by writer Chris Claremont and artists John Byrne and Frank Miller — and brought to excellent life by Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima, respectively (although costume designer Isis Mussenden shouldn’t have based the latter’s look quite so heavily from the aforementioned Hit Girl).

Angst-ridden journeys of the soul always make good sagas, and this one’s no exception. The core plot doesn’t always hold together — the barrage of double- and triple-crosses makes it rather difficult to separate some of the good guys from the bad guys — but the destination isn’t nearly as important as the trip itself.

One other caveat: McQuarrie, Bomback and Frank assume that viewers either know the Marvel universe or have seen all previous X-Men films, which I regard as mildly presumptuous. For the benefit of newbies, then, a few key facts left unexplained:

Logan (Wolverine) is essentially immortal, thanks to a scientific process that laced his bones with the indestructible metal allow adamantium, and a “healing factor” that quickly repairs all wounds. He’s also much older than one would expect, and doesn’t show his age. Finally, he’s currently consumed with guilt and grief over having been forced to kill X-Men teammate Jean Grey, when she “went evil” as Dark Phoenix (that crisis depicted in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand).

The To Do List: Better left undone

The To Do List (2013) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rating: R, for pervasive strong crude and sexual content, graphic dialogue, drug and alcohol use, and constant profanity, all involving teens
By Derrick Bang

Back in the day, youthful sexual explorations followed a common sports metaphor, starting with reaching first base and concluding with the obvious home run.

My, how things have changed.

At first, Fiona (Alia Shawkat, right) shares good friend Brandy's (Aubrey Plaza) elation
over the progress being made on her summer list of planned sexual accomplishments.
But like the so-called comedy in this film, Brandy eventually takes things too far, at
which point Fiona demonstrates that while she might talk the talk, she apparently
doesn't think much of people who walk the walk.
In these sexually liberated and quite raunchy days of the 21st century, that simple baseball metaphor has blossomed into the complexity of a 22-level video game. Libido-driven folks keeping score begin with quaint French kisses and hickies, progress through once-unspoken acts such as motorboating and teabagging, and ultimately, ah, climax with the horizontal bop itself.

At least, that’s what writer/director Maggie Carey would have us believe, with her smutty teen sex comedy, The To Do List.

Sadly, this new film is neither as witty nor as memorable as 2010’s Easy A, which made a star of Emma Stone, and to which The To Do List inevitably will be compared. While this new film’s star — the richly talented and still under-appreciated Aubrey Plaza — deserves a similar breakout hit, she won’t get it here. Carey’s film is too uneven, too clumsy and (to its detriment) too reflexively coarse, in the manner of various Judd Apatow or Farrelly brothers guys-behaving-badly yock-fests.

Ironically, Carey’s biggest problem is that she doesn’t have the courage to pursue her genre convictions. Her script is plenty dirty, but only at a potty-mouth level the Three Stooges would appreciate. She never achieves genuine heat or eroticism, and too many of Plaza’s fellow cast members work beneath their talents, their line readings stiff, unpersuasive and motivated more by writer’s fiat than narrative rational.

We should perhaps ask the basic question: Is this film intended to be genuinely sexy, or merely filthy? Because if the former was Carey’s intention, to any degree, she fouled out before reaching first base.

Her story is set in 1993, apparently to avoid granting its characters any exposure to the Internet porn that has become readily available since then. We meet the over-achieving Brandy Klark (Plaza) as she graduates from high school and gives a roundly jeered valedictory speech. Whatever her academic accomplishments, she has become infamous as both a teacher’s pet and a virgin, the latter epithet apparently far more heinous than the former.

Despite being a social pariah, Brandy has two gal pals — Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele) — who like her but agree that she could, well, loosen up a bit. To hear Fiona and Wendy talk, they’ve either performed or contemplated every act once relegated to the Kama Sutra or Dr. David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).

I'm So Excited: Not by a long shot

I'm So Excited (2013) • View trailer 
One star. Rating: R, for strong crude and sexual content (all verbal), and drug use
By Derrick Bang

I’m still struggling to believe that Pedro Almodóvar had anything to do with this flimsy waste of celluloid.

In an effort to distract their passengers from the dire circumstances that are preventing
the plane from landing, three flight attendants — from left, Fajas (Carlos Areces),
Ulloa (Raúl Arévalo) and Joserra (Javier Cámara) — break into a hilariously
choreographed rendition of the Pointer Sisters' "I'm So Excited." This three-minute
sequence is absolutely the only thing worth watching in this bewildering bomb.
Almodóvar, the acclaimed Spanish filmmaker who brought us Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, All About My Mother, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Volver?

That Pedro Almodóvar? Seriously?

Hard to imagine.

Almodóvar knows better than most that cheeky, exaggerated sensuality is a magical blend of setting, sharp dialogue, camera-friendly actors who radiate lust and, yes, artful nudity (the less expected and more inappropriate, the better).

I’m So Excited contains none of the above. Worse yet, Almodóvar has abandoned his (usually) progressive Western European sensibilities in favor of stale and vulgar homoerotic jokes: the sort of tiresome one-liners currently viewed as the height of sex humor by arrested American adolescents such as Seth Rogen and the rest of Judd Apatow’s repertory company.

I’ll give Almodóvar the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he deliberately spoofs timeworn gay male stereotypes here ... but that’s not apt to mollify viewers who will recoil from his mincing portrayal of three flight attendants. Not even Liberace was this swish.

On top of which, if Almodóvar removed every dialogue reference to fellatio — spoken by men, women and genders hard to determine — I suspect his entire script would clock in at fewer than 25 words. Never have so many men, some of them defiantly heterosexual, claimed to so thoroughly enjoy wrapping their mouths around ... um, you get the idea.

This might be amusing — even hilarious — under better circumstances. But absent context or back-story, it’s just a bunch of ill-defined characters with potty mouths and overcooked libidos. Never has polymorphous perversity sounded so ... well ... dull.

This film also looks cheap, with almost all of its “action” restricted to the cramped, obviously fake-set interior of an airplane. Brief detours are taken to a) an apartment; and b) a city street. Also not what you’d call budget-busters. Production costs couldn’t have topped $1.78.

The cast looks and sounds under-rehearsed, and the dialogue is forced, unpersuasive and (from the sound of things) frequently improvised. I’m amazed Almodóvar had the audacity to claim scripting credit; I see scant evidence of actual writing.

He also opens with a tease: a quick scene between Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz, leading us to hope that we’ll see more of them. No such luck. Their radiant faces — their naturalistic performances, and their obvious chemistry — vanish after a quick prologue. After that, we’re stuck with the B-Team. No, wait ... more like the P-Team.

The story then, such as it is:

Banderas and Cruz make their cameos as León and Jessica, members of the ground crew for Peninsula Airlines Flight 2549; thanks to a brief interruption, León fails to properly remove the large wheel chocks, prior to take-off.

We then join Flight 2549 during take-off, as the flight crew preps all passengers with the usual lecture about oxygen masks and seat flotation devices; this is our first glimpse of flight attendants Fajas (Carlos Areces), Ulloa (Raúl Arévalo) and Joserra (Javier Cámara).

Then, whoosh, time passes. The plane is quiet, which is no surprise; everybody in coach is fast asleep, having been doped with muscle relaxants (!). For some reason, the business class passengers have been allowed to remain awake. (I guess we’d have no movie otherwise, which I’d argue would have been a good thing.)

The reason for the doping, and for the worried expressions shared by pilot Alex Acero (Antonio De La Torre) and co-pilot Benito Morón (Hugo Silva), is that Flight 2549 is in trouble. It can’t land because the aforementioned chocks have interfered with the deployment of landing gear. The intended flight to Mexico City has been canceled; the plane just keeps circling, waiting for ground-based Folks In Charge to find and then prepare a runway for an emergency landing.

We now pause, for a moment of topicality.

Almodóvar can’t be blamed for bad timing; he certainly didn’t know that his film would gain its U.S. opening mere weeks after the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco. I’d like to think, however, that the folks at Sony Pictures Classics might have deemed release a wee bit tasteless, and elected to postpone. Absent that bit of prudence, we’re left with a low-rent sex comedy that would have been dreadful under the best of circumstances, but becomes even worse by attempting to mine humor from a situation that is seriously un-funny at this particular moment.

(Disney “waited” six months, until April 2002, to release Big Trouble — with its tasteless bomb-in-a-plane climax — in the wake of 9/11. That didn’t work either.)


With death a very real possibility, the business class passengers eventually confess the reasons for their trips: revelations apparently intended to be provocative and/or amusing.


Bruna (Lola Duenas), a self-proclaim psychic, frets that she may die a virgin; she can’t stop eyeing the impressive pants bulge of one fellow snoozing away in coach. A newlywed groom (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), actually a drug mule with a baggy of mescaline shoved up his fundament, pops pills into the mouth of his bride (Laya Martí) so that she’ll sleep through whatever happens next.

Gossip queen Norma (Cecilia Roth), actually a dominatrix who boasts of having slept with her country’s 600 most powerful men — while taping said encounters, for blackmail leverage — worries that this calamity is a rather ostentatious plot to kill her. Infante (José María Yazpik), a somewhat sinister fellow, keeps close counsel.

Corrupt businessman Mas (José Luis Torrijo), having fled just ahead of arrest back home, laments the ongoing estrangement from his daughter, who has embraced a provocative sexual lifestyle. Finally, soap opera star Ricardo Galán (Guillermo Toledo) has abandoned his most recent lover, while contrived circumstances bring a former lover (Blanca Suárez, as Ruth) back into his life.

Our brief sojourn with Ruth takes us back to the ground, for a subplot that appears to have been dragged in from another film. A better one, too, from what we see of it.

Back in the air, everybody gets drunk — including the pilots — in some cases will past the point of acute alcohol poisoning. That’s not funny; it’s just dumb. Inhibitions disappear, particularly after the application of mescaline-laced punch. Confessions emerge, none the slightest bit interesting. The bride demonstrates a talent for having sex in her sleep. Bruna has sex with the well-hung fellow in coach, while he sleeps.

Nobody undresses, not even a little. As Joe Bob Briggs might have groused, back in the day, we don’t even get a flash of side-boob during any of these couplings.

The film’s sole saving grace comes when the three gay caballeros — ah, flight attendants — wriggle and jiggle their way through a lively lip-synched and hilariously choreographed rendition of the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited” (hence the film’s title).

No doubt this scene soon will be extracted as a YouTube video, saving everybody the trouble of enduring the rest of this tawdry turkey.

Actually, I’m So Excited has one more virtue: It’s short. At 90 minutes, it’s only 87 minutes too long.

I don’t care how much you admire Almodóvar; this one must be skipped.

You’ve been warned.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Way, Way Back: A droll little gem

The Way, Way Back (2013) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, sexual candor, mild profanity and brief drug content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.19.13

We don’t necessarily realize this right away, but the battle lines are drawn in this film’s opening scene: War has been declared, and no quarter will be given.

Having enjoyed a delightful day together, which has lent weight to their growing
fondness for each other, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) and Duncan (Liam James)
return home to a chilly reception from the aggressive adult that this boy has grown to
loathe: the bully who has become his divorced mother's constant companion. And,
just like that, the day's magic evaporates...
Sadly, our adversaries are badly mismatched, which the villain of this piece knows full well. And he’s perfectly willing to reduce his opponent to emotional rubble.

The Way, Way Back is one of the best coming-of-age tales ever caught on film: a captivating blend of snarky comedy and heartbreaking pathos that evokes pleasant memories of Summer of ’42, Stand by Me and other classics of the genre. This project is cast to perfection, with every actor — in parts large or small — making the most of the sharp script from writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.

Very few films leave us wanting more, as the screen darkens, the lights come up, and we regretfully abandon our seats. I didn’t want this one to end. Indeed, I wanted to watch it again, if only to catch some of the dialogue that was buried beneath the laughter coming from last week’s delighted preview audience.

The action takes place in the summer beach community of Marshfield, Mass., and the surrounding area on Boston’s South Shore. Although the setting is contemporary — only because we spot smart phones and ear buds — the locale feels oddly timeless, as is appropriate for the narrative. Youthful angst knows no specific era; the desperation of adolescents struggling for maturity has been relevant ever since Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

This anywhen atmosphere is further amplified by Water Wizz, the somewhat dilapidated water park that plays such an important role in these events. (It’s no set; Water Wizz is a fully operational, mom-and-pop operation in East Wareham, Mass.) Back in the day, Hollywood sometimes used traveling carnivals and circuses as settings for coming-of-age sagas; fading theme parks seem to have become the modern equivalent.

I’d love to see this new film on a double bill with 2009’s under-rated Adventureland, which has a similarly nostalgic vibe, although its protagonist is a bit older. Now, that would be a grand night at the movies.


Fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James) has been dragged along for a summer “vacation” at the beach house owned by his divorced mother Pam’s (Toni Collette) overbearing boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). To say that Trent is a calculating bully would be understatement; he views Duncan as a potential impediment toward his pursuit of Pam — an absolutely accurate appraisal — and snatches every opportunity to crush the boy’s already fragile spirit.

R.I.P.D.: D.O.A.

R.I.P.D. (2013) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rating: PG-13, for relentless fantasy violence, sexual candor, mild sensuality and some profanity
By Derrick Bang

This film is saddled with a salad bar script.

Start with a heaping helping from the big bowl (Men in Black), add some variety from the mid-sized tubs (Ghostbusters and others), top off with some dressing and a pinch of seasoning swiped from even more fantasy predecessors, and you’ve got a movie.

While new R.I.P.D. recruit Nick (Ryan Reynolds, center) watches from the background,
veteran lawman Roy (Jeff Bridges, right) and fer-shur bad guy Bobby (Kevin Bacon) try
to determine who can out-glare the other. Honestly, that's one of the more genuinely
entertaining moments in this lamentable misfire.
Or that may have been the theory, anyway. I call it leftovers. Stale leftovers.

Writers Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi and David Dobkin haven’t an original idea between them; everything here is begged, borrowed or stolen from other sources (some better, some ... just familiar). The premise may have started with Peter M. Lenkov’s cheeky Dark Horse comic book series, which ran for four issues back in 1999, but it turned into something of a derivative mess en route to the big screen.

And while R.I.P.D. would be an unsatisfying film under any circumstances, it’s particularly tiresome during a summer laden with similarly overblown, city-leveling action fantasies. The result, for the viewer, is a serious case of Been There, Endured That.

If Ryan Reynolds isn’t careful, he’ll squander his 15 minutes of fame. Between this and 2011’s Green Lantern, he’ll get a reputation for destroying mid-range comic book franchises.

At a scant 96 minutes, R.I.P.D. certainly doesn’t linger, but director Robert Schwentke’s feverish pace borders on the ridiculous. He and editor Mark Helfrich have orchestrated a film that feels as if it’s on Benzedrine; everything comes fast and furious, the rat-a-tat cutting as breathless and frantic as Crank or Run Lola Run. But while atmospheric frenzy may have been a solid stylistic choice with those two flicks, here it’s just another annoying affectation ... and something else cribbed along the way.

Actually, Schwentke misses no opportunity to be irritating. He even opens his film with a fleeting, action-laced flash-forward, and then employs a brief voice-over to wind the clock back a few days, to the story’s somewhat quieter origins.

That move is the first refuge of a nervous director who worries that he can’t hold an audience without employing tactics, and it smells of panicked, eleventh-hour tinkering. Voice-over isn’t used again — a telling sign — and we also wind up watching that opening sequence again, when the narrative catches up to it. Déjà vu, anyone?

I’d be inclined to write this flick off as a total loss, but Jeff Bridges is too entertaining to dismiss; he makes the viewing experience genuinely worthwhile. Which — as is the case with RED 2, also opening today — explains why stars deserve their salaries.

Boston cop Nick Walker (Reynolds) begins the last day of his life by cuddling Julia (Stephanie Szostak), the wife he adores, and who adores him in return. She thanks him for the new little fruit tree in their back yard, unaware that Nick concealed some contraband beneath the root ball, when he planted the tree late the previous evening, in order to surprise her.

RED 2: Twice the goofiness

RED 2 (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for constant action and violence, frenetic gunplay and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang

This one’s a triumph of star power over script shortcomings.

RED 2 doesn’t even try for logic or verisimilitude; it’s a globe-trotting, live-action cartoon that does little but place its characters into improbable situations that prompt wry one-liners from the seasoned cast.

Having arrived in Moscow, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker, center) is annoyed to discover
that boyfriend Frank (Bruce Willis) and Russian agent Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones)
have some history ... and that Katja seems eager to resume their studies.
In most cases, that’s good enough ... because when the cast is this polished, and their comic timing so well established, we can’t help enjoying the result. Scripters Jon and Erich Hoeber have strayed even further afield from the original graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, but that really doesn’t matter. Films of this sort may be no more than a guilty pleasure, but there’s no denying the entertainment factor.

I’m sure 2010’s RED was envisioned as a one-off, but the global box-office must have been a pleasant surprise ... and we all know how Hollywood operates. On top of which, it probably wasn’t hard to persuade Bruce Willis, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren to reprise their roles as aging former spies — RED stands for “retired, extremely dangerous” — who are granted yet another chance to show up their condescending younger colleagues.

Hoeber and Hoeber have reprised their scripting chores, but director Dean Parisot is a series newcomer, taking over for Robert Schwentke. It’s a good trade; Parisot helmed 1999’s cheeky sci-fi spoof, Galaxy Quest, so he clearly understands the tone required by this equally snarky franchise.

Having survived the events of their previous adventure, veteran spy Frank Moses (Willis) and girlfriend Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) are attempting to solidify their unlikely relationship. They’re crazy about each other, but that doesn’t seem to be enough; the protective Frank wants to ensure that Sarah remains out of harm’s way — rather difficult, given his history — while she pouts over the prospect of missing another dose of dangerous fun.

Be advised: Parker has one of the best pouts in the business. Parisot clearly understands the power of her stricken expressions, and finds ample opportunity to showcase them.

Alas, Frank isn’t destined for a quiet retirement. Paranoid best friend Marvin Boggs (Malkovich) barely has time to deliver a warning, before being blown up by Forces Unknown. Moments later, Frank is snatched by U.S. black ops thugs operating under orders from the malevolent Jack Horton (Neal McDonough, making the most of his deliciously nasty bad-guy role). Somehow, these events have something to do with a next-gen weapon code-named Nightshade: a remnant from Frank and Marvin’s Cold War past.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Pacific Rim: Monster Mash

Pacific Rim (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense sci-fi violence and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.12.13

Guillermo del Toro must have loved Godzilla movies as a kid.

His newest action fantasy, Pacific Rim, is a valentine to the dozen or so romp ’em, stomp ’em features that starred “the big G” during del Toro’s formative years. (Quite a few more have been made since then.) This tip of the hat clearly is deliberate, since the director and fellow scripter Travis Beacham refer to their ginormous critters as kaiju, the Japanese term — literally “strange beast,” but more commonly “giant monster” — coined, back in the day, to describe Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and their ilk.

Strapped into the high-tech body suits that make them "one" with the giant robot
warriors into which they've been placed, Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako (Rinko
Kikuchi) prepare for a battle they already know is unwinnable, against a monstrous
beast with adaptive "enhancements" that have made it far stronger than their
mechanical avatar.
Throw in plenty of 21st century whiz-bang special effects, and the result is a high-tech thrill ride that blends big monsters, equally massive robot-like avatars, and the stubborn pluck of a puny human race unwilling to go quietly into that good night.

During a summer laden with end-of-the-world scenarios — zombie apocalypse and Kryptonian apocalypse, not to mention the biblical Book of Revelations — this one takes the prize for cheeky absurdity. At the same time, del Toro and Beacham pay careful attention to the human element, giving us would-be saviors who are inspiring for their fortitude, and endearing for their flaws.

Not to mention, it’s always nice when a screenplay takes the optimistic view, and shows world powers uniting in an effort to save the planet. Such all-for-one selflessness goes all the way back to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, and the reminder is refreshing in this divisively cynical age.

Audacious fantasy has been del Toro’s stock-in-trade ever since 1997’s under-appreciated and genuinely creepy Mimic. He also was the perfect choice to adapt graphic novelist Mike Mignola’s lunatic Hellboy series, and — as an executive producer — del Toro has chaperoned riveting projects such as 2007’s wonderfully atmospheric The Orphanage.

And let us not forget his masterpiece: 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth, the Oscar-winning horror film that brought adult sensibilities to a genre too frequently willing to settle for much less, and which demonstrated that human monsters can be much, much worse than anything cooked up by our vivid imaginations.

Pacific Rim doesn’t wade through such high-falutin' waters, though; this is simply del Toro’s first stab at a crowd-pleasing, mega-budget summer blockbuster, and he has done a commendable job.

The film, set in the not-too-distant future, opens with an extended flashback: An unseen narrator recalls the unexpected arrival of the first kaiju, an enormous — and quite savage — amphibious creature bent on death and destruction. It rises from the ocean depths and wreaks considerable havoc before being brought down by conventional military hardware.

Apparently passing this off as an isolated incident — perhaps a lone, Bradbury-esque behemoth, driven by curiosity to the surface world — mankind is similarly unprepared months later, when the next one arrives. And then another. And another, at noticeably shorter intervals. Scientists realize that they’re coming from some sort of dimensional portal deep in the Pacific Ocean.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Lone Ranger: The mild, mild West

The Lone Ranger (2013) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense action violence and suggested gore
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.5.13

The best that can be said for this fiasco, is that it’s marginally superior to director William A. Fraker’s leaden, charmless 1981 film, The Legend of the Lone Ranger.

But that’s damning with very faint praise.

Having failed to persuade a Comanche tribe that war with the neighboring white-man
settlement is a bad idea, Tonto (Johnny Depp, left) and the Lone Ranger (Armie
Hammer) are left in a painfully vulnerable position. And it's about to get worse, when
scorpions come calling...
Chief among that earlier film’s many flaws was the block-of-wood “performance” from no-name star Klinton Spilsbury, in (thank God) his only big-screen appearance. Michael Horse, as Tonto, acted circles around him.

But pretty much everything else was wrong, as well; even the usually dependable John Barry turned in a listless score that was marred further by a pokey, half-speed rendition of “The William Tell Overture” — the Lone Ranger’s iconic theme — that brought the already sluggish drama to a dead stop.

So I give composer Hans Zimmer credit for his spirited, cheer-inducing handling of “The William Tell Overture” during this new film’s climax, and I credit director Gore Verbinski for knowing how best to use it. Kudos, as well, to Verbinski and special-effects supervisors Tim Alexander and Gary Brozenich, for two audacious train chases: a good one to open the film, and a dog-nuts-sensational one to close it.

But pretty much everything else is wrong.

For openers, this clumsy, overcooked mess runs a butt-numbing 149 minutes: a “privilege” Verbinski apparently earned because his similarly bloated Pirates of the Caribbean entries have made a gazillion bucks for Disney. Mind you, length is fine if the script demands it, but that’s far from the case here; as my watch’s illuminated dial ticked off the minutes — depressingly slowly — toward the two-hour mark, I desperately hoped we were about to wrap things up ... but no, the slog continued, mercilessly, for another half-hour.

The major problem is that Verbinski and his scripters — Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio and Justin Haythe — can’t decide what sort of movie to make. On the one hand, they more-or-less attempt to honor the existing Lone Ranger mythos, as established by the popular radio series (1933-54) and TV series (1949-57). I appreciate the effort, half-hearted though it may be.

On the other hand, they blend this often grim drama with the sort of jokey, slapstick tone that marked the Pirates series ... no surprise there, since Elliott and Rossio wrote all four entries in that franchise. No surprise, as well, that Johnny Depp’s Tonto is the same sort of mincing, scowling, alternate-reality caricature that the actor made of Capt. Jack Sparrow. The only difference is that Tonto isn’t ever drunk ... although the film’s scripters flirt with that notion, as well.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Despicable Me 2: Villainy lite

Despicable Me 2 (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, and quite needlessly, for mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang

Thank goodness for the minions.

2010’s Despicable Me got much of its hilarious edge from the personality transformation experienced by Gru, the vaguely Slavic super-villain who mellows out — but only somewhat — after encountering a trio of trusting little girls.

Sent undercover as the owner of a mega-mall's boutique cupcake emporium, Gru is
annoyed to discover that he has been saddled with an assisant: Lucy Wilde, an
aggressively eager agent of the Anti-Villian League. Their goal: to figure out which
neighboring shopkeeper actually is a dastardly criminal mastermind.
Gru’s introductory strut in that first film — to a deliciously snarky title song written and performed by Pharrell Williams — was the stuff of greatness. Here was a gleeful scoundrel who’d embrace badness big and small, whether stealing the Earth’s Moon, or stealing candy from a baby. And he wouldn’t merely snatch the sweet from the crestfallen tyke; he’d replace it with a cod liver oil sucker.

Watching this fellow struggle against the arrival of a hitherto buried good side — trying to stay wicked in the face of unconditional love from Agnes, the youngest of his new wards — was the stuff of classic character comedy.

This sequel’s Gru, alas, has completed this makeover, and has fully embraced his light side. As a result, he’s both less interesting and less funny. His inventive genius now reduced to concocting playful gadgets for Agnes’ birthday party, the low point arrives when — a paid actress having failed to show up — Gru dresses himself as the world’s most unlikely fairy princess.

Which, yes, results in a genuinely poignant moment between Agnes and her de facto daddy.

I don’t intend to suggest that Despicable Me 2 is either disappointing or unsatisfying: far from it. Returning directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud maintain their engaging blend of character comedy, goofy slapstick and oddball peril, and returning scripters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul certainly know the territory.

But the latter are on their own this time, whereas the first film derived from a story by Sergio Pablos ... and he may be the essential missing ingredient. Despicable Me 2 is a more conventional animated comedy, in terms of its standard-issue narrative and predictable plot hiccups. We never knew what would happen in the first film, which was much of its charm; this sequel, in contrast, lacks that element of uncertainty.

Fortunately, Daurio and Paul have the good sense to grant more screen time to the first film’s breakout stars: the mischievous, hapless and hilariously speech-challenged minions.

We can’t get enough of them, and this new film takes ample advantage of that fact.

(To be more precise, we certainly haven’t yet gotten enough of them. Let’s see what happens next year, when they get their own movie.)