Friday, October 25, 2013

The Counselor: Guilty as charged

The Counselor (2013) • View trailer 
No stars (turkey). Rating: R, for graphic violence, grisly images, profanity and strong sexual content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.25.13

Cormac McCarthy apparently felt that 2009’s big-screen adaptation of his novel The Road wasn’t sufficiently bleak, violent or morally depraved, so he upped his game with the original screenplay for this glossy bit of rubbish.

Despite repeated, protracted and viciously descriptive warnings from Westray (Brad Pitt,
left), our imbecilic title character (Michael Fassbender) stubbornly insists on getting
involved with a massive shipment of illegal drugs. After all, what could go wrong?
Rarely have so many A-list stars been involved in such a lamentable waste of time.

The Counselor isn’t merely set in a world of abominable behavior; McCarthy’s characters are cheerfully pragmatic about it. No act too vile to contemplate? They don’t merely contemplate; they discuss barbarism with the thoughtful ease of two fellows comparing cigar brands in a gentlemen’s club. Then, having laboriously exhausted the subject, director Ridley Scott ensures that we’ll eventually get to watch each degenerate act.

McCarthy has a Pulitzer Prize to his credit, for the aforementioned The Road, and rumor suggests that he’s under consideration for a Nobel Prize for literature. The characters in his novels often struggle with moral ambiguity in an increasingly cynical world, although we’re generally able to sympathize with a well-meaning protagonist, whether John Grady Cole in All the Pretty Horses, or Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in the grimmer No Country for Old Men (adapted into a sensational 2007 film by Joel and Ethan Coen).

But there’s nobody to like in The Counselor; indeed, it’s difficult to even understand most of the characters who populate this deadly dull study of ill-advised acts and their horrible consequences. Everybody is morally compromised at best, or sociopathic, or indifferently brutal. Everybody except the token innocent, that is, who may as well be wearing a sign that reads “Sacrificial Lamb.”

Mind you, a roster of degenerates isn’t necessarily bad in and of itself; Quentin Tarantino has a way of extracting wonderfully dark entertainment from the vicious swine who inhabit, say, Pulp Fiction or Inglourious Basterds. But that’s precisely the point: Tarantino characters are engaging for the way they revel in their bad behavior, whereas the increasingly tiresome players in this drama give new meaning to the word “boring.”

Friday, October 18, 2013

Carrie: Still raising the roof

Carrie (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for bloody violence, disturbing images, blasphemy, profanity and sexual content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.18.13

Sissy Spacek was 27 when she starred in 1976’s first stab at Stephen King’s Carrie.

Although she acted the hell out of that role — pun intended — and garnered a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her efforts, she never quite looked or “felt” the part; her residual baby-fat years were a decade behind her. The actresses playing Carrie’s tormentors, all in their mid-20s, also looked too old for their parts ... but that’s how director Brian De Palma was able to get away with all the nudity in the infamous opening shower scene.

Having made a dress and tried hard to transform herself into a young woman as typical
as her many classmates, Carrie (Chloë Grace Moretz) nervously pauses before joining
the teens entering the doors that lead to the school prom. Her escort, Tommy (Ansel
Elgort), gently insists that everything will be fine ... but we know better.
With respect to age-appropriateness, then, Chloë Grace Moretz’s presence in director Kimberly Peirce’s fresh take on Carrie is a step in the right direction. Indeed, a massive step: At 16, Moretz is precisely right; she exudes the soft vulnerability of a repressed little girl whose horrific upbringing has further stunted her transition to womanhood.

Moretz is terrific in the role: never better than when she displays the heartbreaking flicker of trust over Carrie’s ill-advised hope that maybe, perhaps, she’s about to be accepted by her high school peers. Moretz’s deer-in-the-headlights insecurity, at such moments, wafts off her in palpable waves; we grieve for what we know is about to come.

Every generation seems to demand its own version of Carrie, and no surprise; King really touched a nerve with this story. As an iconic character, Carrie White seems destined for more lives than a cat; aside from De Palma’s original adaptation and this new film, we’ve also experienced lesser entries in 1999 (a sequel of sorts, titled The Rage: Carrie 2) and 2002 (a TV movie with Angela Bettis).

Bullied gay teens may command most of the headlines these days, but there remains no shortage of tormented children of all stripes. Girls can be particularly cruel to the disenfranchised ducklings in their midst, as King knew first-hand, from his early days as an English teacher in Maine’s Hamden Public School.

If anything, the situation may be getting worse. Only a few short days ago, two Florida girls — 12 and 14 — were arrested and charged with felony aggravated stalking, following the suicide, a month earlier, of a 12-year-old classmate. The arrests were made after one of the tormentors posted the following message on Facebook last Saturday: “Yes ik [I know] I bullied REBECCA nd she killed her self but [I don’t care].”

Charming generation, this social media set.

Escape Plan: A breakout surprise

Escape Plan (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: R, for violence and profanity

By Derrick Bang

Sometimes it pays to approach a film with diminished expectations.

After the comic book nonsense of both Expendables flicks, not to mention January’s distastefully trashy Bullet to the Head, I held out little hope for Sylvester Stallone’s recent return to the big screen.

Although trapped in a maximum-security prison that offers little hope for any sort of
escape plan, Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone, left) and Emil Rottmayer (Arnold
Schwarzenegger) have a few ideas ... all of them highly dangerous, of course, and
with little chance of success. But it's not like they have anything else to do...
And although Arnold Schwarzenegger cleverly parodied his advancing age in The Last Stand, also released in January, box-office disinterest made that little action flick’s title seem prophetic, with respect to his career.

I therefore haven’t been surprised by the disinterest in Escape Plan, which arrives in theaters today after a rather lackluster publicity campaign.

Which just goes to show the folly of jumping to conclusions. Swedish-born director Mikael Håfström has uncorked a tidy little thriller, which gets much of its juice from a clever script by Miles Chapman and Jason Keller. The premise is intriguing, the execution is engaging — if occasionally burdened by exploitation flick clichés — and, yes, Stallone and Schwarzenegger acquit themselves honorably.

Indeed, they’re perfectly cast in this twisty prison saga, which seems to have been shaped with their strengths — and acting limitations — in mind. Håfström allows them to do what they do best, and they do it well; the result certainly won’t be more than a footnote in cinema history, but it’s a reasonably entertaining way to spend a night at the movies.

Ray Breslin (Stallone) has a most unusual career: He’s a structural engineer who specializes in prison design, or — more precisely — the weaknesses of such institutions. As the “field agent” half of the Los Angeles-based security firm Breslin-Clark, he allows himself to be incarcerated into various prisons as an apparent felon, in order to escape and thus expose design and (more frequently) staffing weaknesses.

Although ostensibly on his own, Breslin always is monitored by his operational partners: handler Abigail Ross (Amy Ryan) and genius hacker Hush (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson). Partner Lester Clark (Vincent D’Onofrio) acts as the company “face,” securing the assignments and managing the tidy sums that Breslin charges for his talents.

Following the completion of yet another routine assignment, Breslin is offered a tantalizing challenge by CIA operative Jessica Miller (Caitriona Balfe). Wanting to remove the political stink left by a decade’s worth of nasty headlines concerning Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary rendition, shadowy U.S. black-ops agencies have collaborated to construct a top-secret über-prison at an undisclosed location, well away from prying media eyes. The goal is to keep its dangerous occupants locked up, no matter how clever — or desperate — they might be.

That’s where Breslin comes in: If he can’t break out, then All Concerned will be satisfied that their “detention center” lives up to its promise.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Captain Phillips: Take-charge thriller

Captain Phillips (2013) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, violence and substance abuse

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.11.13

Some stories are so astonishing, they could only be true; you’d never believe them as plots in a novel.

Utterly helpless at the hands of four heavily armed Somali pirates, Rich PHillips (Tom
Hanks, center) nonetheless weighs every option, primarily concerned about the safety
of his crew, but also — at all times — seeking a psychological edge that might allow
him to outwit his captors.
The credibility-stretching 2009 saga of Captain Richard Phillips and the U.S. container ship Maersk Alabama is just such a narrative, and it has become a taut, tension-laden drama in the capable hands of documentarian-turned-filmmaker Paul Greengrass.

Thriller fans know Greengrass for his superlative entries in the Jason Bourne series, most notably 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, by far the best of the bunch. But Greengrass also is the writer/director who uncorked United 93 five short years after 9/11, constructing a tense, deeply unsettling real-time depiction of what likely happened that horrible day.

As with United 93, Greengrass’ new film is ripped from disturbing headlines, with screenwriter Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, Breach) adapting the 2010 memoir A Captain’s Duty:Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea.

That book is written by Phillips, with an assist from Stephan Talty ... which does, by definition, dilute some of this film’s suspense. But that hardly matters; to a great degree, Phillips’ ordeal is well known by Americans who sat glued to their TV sets during five days in April 2009. The key point here is that Greengrass depicts this saga with a degree of verisimilitude, and an attention to detail, that border on documentary realism.

Add superlative performances from Tom Hanks and the actors playing his Somali captors, and the result is can’t-miss cinema: You literally won’t take your eyes off the screen.

The film opens quietly, as veteran merchant mariner Rich Phillips (Hanks) packs in anticipation of another routine assignment; we get brief face-time with his wife, Andrea (Catherine Keener), but then she’s never seen again.

(Which, just in passing, might be a missed bet: Just as much drama unfolded in Vermont, as media crews bird-dogged an agonized Andrea Phillips, while she followed these events ... and I’d love to have seen the impressively talented Keener play that role. Then again, Greengrass may have felt that her end of the saga would have diluted the drama.)

Friday, October 4, 2013

Gravity: Grim survival drama

Gravity (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, disturbing images and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.4.13

On Jan. 11, 2007, the Chinese military destroyed one of its orbiting satellites with a ground-based missile. Although China insisted that this was the best way to “retire” the aging satellite, visions of a surface-to-space missile race naturally alarmed more than a few nations around the world.

When things go wrong in space, they go very wrong, as Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra
Bullock) quickly discovers. Situations that would be bad enough on the ground, with
gravity operating in one's favor, quickly turn catastrophic in an environment where a
small space suit puncture likely would mean instantaneous death.
Saber-rattling aside, the much more serious issue was the orbiting “debris cloud” of up to 300,000 bits of satellite that resulted, which still could pose serious danger to other satellites or spacecraft en route to the moon and beyond. (NASA, worried about this since 1978, has dubbed the frightening possibility of cascading collisions the Kessler Syndrome.) For this very reason, the U.S. and the Soviet Union halted such anti-satellite experiments in the 1980s.

Clearly, filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón smelled an opportunity. The result, which he directed and co-wrote with his son, Jonás, is Gravity: one of the very few feasible space-based dramas ever released via conventional channels. (I say this to distinguish Cuarón’s film from numerous sci-fi and fantasy entries, or jes’-plain-silly action epics such as Armageddon and Space Cowboys.)

Gravity is both a suspenseful nail-biter and an impressive visual achievement: a studio production that comes close to the on-screen authenticity of an IMAX space documentary. The special effects are stunning, from the gorgeously depicted EVA mission that opens the story, to the weightless activity that takes place within a space station.

When Sandra Bullock “swims” her way from one end of the station to another, passing all sorts of floating debris along the way — not to mention little globules of liquid, or zero-G electrical sparks — everything looks absolutely real. We can’t help a “how the heck did they do that?” sense of wonder, despite our frequent ho-hum reaction to what CGI effects have wrought these days.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber — and the latter’s company, Framestore — have done stunning work. Indeed, their efforts are almost too good; at times it’s hard to focus on the story, since we’re so frequently dazzled by the on-screen visuals.

But only at times. Cuarón has orchestrated a taut survival drama that masterfully exploits claustrophobic terrors, not to mention related fears of drowning, suffocating or simply being hurled, alone, into the depths of space, able to do nothing but count down the seconds before the oxygen runs out.

Runner Runner: A fouled hand

Runner Runner (2013) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity and occasional blunt sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

Some movies defiantly wear their movie-ness like an ill-advised badge of honor.

The premise is so contrived, the characters so ill-defined, their behavior so random, that all we can do is shake our heads in resignation, thinking, What can we expect? It’s only a movie.

It's every teenage boy's dream come true: Richie (Justin Timberlake, left) couldn't be
happier when Internet gambling tycoon Ivan Block (Ben Affleck) accepts him as a
protégé. Of course, Richie fails to heed the slightest trace of common sense, branding
himself as the biggest sucker of all time: an attitude without which we wouldn't have
this film. Which might have been a good thing.
Runner, Runner fits that bill.

The script, credited to Brian Koppelman and David Levien, is absolutely ludicrous. It opens with a behavioral howler and just gets worse, its central character — our de facto hero — ignoring common sense to a degree that makes it impossible to sympathize with him. Frankly, he fully deserves the consequences that he eventually struggles so hard to escape.

Let him hang, and move on.

But no, that would defy the revenge scenario that Koppelman and Levien so clumsily stitch together, from one bewildering moment to the next. Director Brad Furman, perhaps recognizing the weak hand he has been dealt, does his best to dazzle us with Costa Rican scenery and the wretched excess of an opulent casino gaming community.

Indeed, cinematographer Mauro Fiore lingers so long on such a setting, when our young hero initially enters this hedonistic realm, that I began to wonder if Furman had forgotten what to do next.

Runner, Runner, set in the world of Internet gambling, is an echo for Koppelman and Levien. They made their bones back in 1998 with Rounders, a slick suspense thriller also involving high-stakes poker and a protagonist — in that case, Matt Damon — who gets in over his head. Clearly obsessed with gamblers and intricate stings, Koppelman and Levien subsequently created the short-lived TV series Tilt and brought the Danny Ocean series to a satisfying conclusion with Ocean’s Thirteen.

Things since then haven’t been nearly as satisfying, with two failures — The Girlfriend Experience and Solitary Man, both in 2009 — that were outside their comfort zone. No doubt Koppelman and Levien viewed Runner, Runner as a means of returning to what they know best.

Well guys, they say you can’t go home again ... and that’s certainly the case here.

Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake), a Wall Street up-and-comer who lost everything when the market crashed, has started over as a Princeton grad student. Lacking a respectable means to fund his education, he has been earning a commission as a shill for Midnight Black, an enormously successful Internet gambling site.

Alas, Princeton’s dean (a small but well-played role by Bob Gunton) thinks little of Richie’s clandestine operation, and orders it shut down. With no other means of earning tuition money, Richie goes “all in” one night by yielding to the very temptation that he has professed, during his smart-alecky narration, to be smart enough to avoid: playing online poker at Midnight Black. Naturally, he loses everything.

But suspiciously.