Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street: A howling disappointment

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rating: R, for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive profanity and drug use, and some violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.31.13

Boobs, blow and bad language.

That’s my takeaway, from the 180 minutes I wasted — nay, endured — while watching The Wolf of Wall Street.

This is where Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) feels the most comfortable, and the
most powerful: at the microphone in front of his troops at Stratton Oakmont, preparing
to deliver another do-or-die speech designed to encourage everybody to hit the
phones and fleece ever more working-class suckers out of their hard-earned savings.
Root-canal surgery would have been less painful.

Director Martin Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio have made beautiful music on numerous occasions, but this symphony of wretched excess plays more like a botched rehearsal.

There isn’t more than 20 minutes’ worth of actual narrative in Terence Winter’s sloppy excuse for a screenplay. Indeed, this plays like the parody sketch Saturday Night Live might have made of a much better movie ... or, perhaps, the Mad Magazine take on far superior material.

Great, expansive chunks of this bewildering project could have come from the improvisational, goof-laden antics of a Seth Rogen/Judd Apatow farce. Pointless exchanges of inane, profanity-laden, frat boy “dialogue” go on and on and on and on. Our stars seem to make stuff up from one scene to the next, pretending that frenzied hysteria is some reasonable substitute for actual acting, with Scorsese apparently content to let the camera roll.

That sort of babbling slapstick nonsense wears thin very quickly ... and yet it continues for what seems an eternity.

I want those three hours of my life back.

Winter’s script is adapted from Jordan Belfort’s 2007 “memoir” of the same title, a book that can be called laughably unreliable at best, perniciously self-aggrandizing at worst. Belfort was yet another opportunistic Wall Street swindler who made the most of the high-flying 1990s, largely by defrauding investors with penny stocks via the “prestigious” brokerage firm front of Stratton Oakmont.

He was indicted for securities fraud and money laundering in 1998, investors having lost somewhere north of $200 million. Belfort served just shy of two years in federal prison, then re-invented himself as a “motivational speaker” and wrote the aforementioned book — and a sequel, Catching the Wolf of Wall Street — mostly to revel in the notoriously bad behavior he and his colleagues enjoyed while fleecing the unwary.

Actually, he’s the perfect egotistical show-off for the share-all Facebook generation.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Grudge Match: Down for the count

Grudge Match (2013) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor, profanity and sports-related violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.27.13

This film may not be as bad as expected, but it still isn’t very good.

Grudge Match has the smell of a breathless high-concept pitch, and you can hear the exclamation marks: “Stallone and De Niro! As former rival boxers! Talked into one last bout!”

Razor (Sylvester Stallone, left) walked away from his boxing career years ago, a decision
wholly supported by Sally (Kim Basinger), the former sweetheart trying to rekindle their
relationship. Unfortunately, longtime rival Billy (Robert De Niro) refuses to accept this,
and keeps trying to change Razor's mind ... via increasingly hostile behavior.
At which point scripters Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman tried to cobble up a narrative to suit this premise. With bewildering results.

The completed film feels like it wants to be a broad comedy, which would suit the sensibilities of director Peter Segal, whose résumé includes exaggerated farces such as Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, Anger Management and the ill-advised big-screen adaptation of Get Smart. But despite the occasional comedy trappings, Kelleher and Rothman keep flailing away at sincerity and schmaltz: real-world emotion that Segal couldn’t deliver if he hired Federal Express.

The finished product is an uneven mess. Every time we start to ease into one of the story’s heartfelt exchanges, we’re yanked out of the moment by a clumsy, grating scene that seems to belong to an entirely different movie. At which point the gentler pathos, no matter how well delivered, feels contrived. And a cheat.

Sylvester Stallone does the lion’s share of the heavy sentimental lifting, and he deserves credit for an impressive job. His character has heart, and we genuinely feel for the guy; he’s trying to play out the hand he dealt himself, with grace and dignity. Stallone knows precisely how to maximize his morose, mopey expression, and — surprise! — he quickly gets us in his corner.

De Niro, on the other hand, is inflated to the extreme: a farcical, foaming-at-the-mouth caricature of a human being. De Niro overplays to the last row of the second balcony, and Segal apparently lacked the wit (or courage) to suggest that his star might tone it down a few dozen notches. The result, then, is that De Niro tramps through every scene like a rhinoceros in cleats, flattening any semblance of authentic emotion.

Which is ironic, since De Niro’s character is given a lot of the baggage expected from contrived, feel-good “dramedies” of this sort: A grown son he never knew! An adorable grandson he can’t relate to! It’s all clumsy sitcom fodder, and no surprise there, since Kelleher and Rothman cut their teeth as writers for Arsenio Hall and David Letterman’s late-night chat shows, and later worked on TV comedies such as Two and a Half Men and Undeclared.

Point being, these are not guys who understand the finer elements of dramatic restraint. Or even gentle comedy.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

American Hustle: Delectable con job

American Hustle (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, for pervasive profanity, sexual candor, fleeting nudity and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.24.13

Why can’t more movies be this exhilarating?

Wait, I know ... we need bad movies to remind us just how much fun the good ones can be.

Knowing that their scheme has expanded to include the involvement of a particularly
nasty organized crime boss, Irving (Christian Bale, left) and Sydney (Amy Adams) try
to quell their nervous tension prior to a crucial meeting. Their FBI handler, Richie
(Bradley Cooper), on the other hand, isn't smart enough to realize how dangerous
their work is about to become.
David O. Russell has matured into an intoxicating director: one who plans and executes his films with the joie de vivre of a master choreographer. His flawed characters radiate the barely concealed desperation of people clinging to their own emotional wreckage, forever seeking the means to their salvation: some elusive Next Best Thing.

In The Fighter, it was a pro boxing title shot; in Silver Linings Playbook, a much more modest dance contest. In both cases, we rooted for these people despite their serious shortcomings; heck, celebrating the rise of the underdog is part of the American credo. Besides, how could one not adore Micky and Charlene (Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams) in The Fighter, or Pat and Tiffany (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence), in Silver Linings Playbook?

In each case, the combination of street savvy and emotional vulnerability was irresistible. That Pat and Tiffany also were mentally unstable just made them more worthy of redemption.

And so it is with the folks at the heart of American Hustle. They likely aren't worth redemption, at least not in the legal sense, but we can’t help admiring the moxie of these unrepentant criminals, larcenous chutzpah and all. And Russell imbues this film — every scene, every conversation, every frame — with the same exhilarating rush that these protagonists employ to con their marks into some very bad behavior.

American Hustle is loosely based on the real-world FBI Abscam sting that went down in the late 1970s and early ’80s. The movie began life as a script by Eric Singer that made the 2010 Hollywood “Black List” of best as-yet-unproduced screenplays. Singer’s much more factual approach focused on Mel Weinberg, the con artist employed by the FBI to orchestrate the sting that eventually resulted in the conviction of one U.S. senator, six members of the U.S. House of Representatives and a New Jersey state senator, along with other lesser officials.

Ben Affleck briefly considered Singer’s script as a follow-up to The Town, but Russell eventually brought the project to fruition. In the process, Russell modified Singer’s material in order to assemble a roster of fictionalized caricatures, no doubt feeling that an operation as wildly audacious as Abscam needed some equally colorful participants. And, so, the core details here remain accurate — the nature of the operation, the eventual convictions — but the players are, well, brazenly impudent social misfits. At best.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks: Deplorably heartless

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, and needlessly, for "unsettling images"

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.20.13

Pamela Lyndon Travers published Mary Poppins in 1934, and quickly followed it with Mary Poppins Comes Back. Shortly before the series’ third book arrived, she was approached by Walt Disney and his older brother, Roy, about bringing her character to the big screen.

As screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) sinks ever further into his chair,
P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) painstakingly nitpicks the proposed script for
Mary Poppins, questioning increasingly inane details such as the placement of
punctuation marks.
She declined.

Walt, never one to surrender easily, persisted. Indeed, he persisted for roughly two decades, at which point a crack appeared in Travers’ armor.

Director John Lee Hancock’s rather unusual film, Saving Mr. Banks, suggests that financial necessity drove Travers to contemplate Disney’s offer. This seems a reasonable assumption; Travers’ literary output inexplicably stopped in 1953, shortly after the series’ fourth entry, Mary Poppins in the Park. (Travers also wrote other books in between.)

Scripters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith had at least four biographies from which to fashion their narrative, along with a 2002 Australian television documentary (The Shadow of Mary Poppins) and the voluminous recordings and internal documents made during Travers’ two-week visit to the Disney Studios, in the spring of 1961. We therefore can assume reasonable historical accuracy, although — this being a Disney production — the portrait can’t help being shaded in favor of Uncle Walt.

All that said, unknowing viewers are likely to be quite surprised by this film, and perhaps not in a good way. Everybody will bring iconic memories of the cheery 1964 musical, with its effervescent songs and marvelous star turns by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Hancock’s film, in great contrast, is a serious downer: frequently depressing and, ultimately, unforgivably mean-spirited.

Emma Thompson is a precise, highly skilled performer who never wastes a word or gesture, and her take on Travers brings new meaning to the word “shrew.” The author depicted here is arrogant, boorish, condescending and hyper-critical to a degree that suggests mental illness. She demands polite behavior from others but gives none in return. One searches in vain for kindness.

This film’s split narrative — the other half taking place during a crucial year of Travers’ childhood, in rural Australia in 1906 — offers ample reason for the impregnable, emotionally withdrawn shell she’d construct, as an adult; it’s a saga of great sorrow, and we grieve for this little girl, played to apple-cheeked perfection by young Annie Rose Buckley.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug: More Middle-Earth magic

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense fantasy action violence and frightening images

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.13.13

Let’s get the important stuff out of the way.

Yes, Orlando Bloom’s Legolas makes a vibrant return during this second chapter in director Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, under circumstances that will raise the eyebrows of J.R.R. Tolkien purists. No matter; It’s hard to complain when Jackson and co-scripters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro integrate this fan-favorite character with such verve.

As Thorin (Richard Armitage, right) explains what Bilbo (Martin Freeman, left) is to do,
once he gets inside the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, the little hobbit finally, truly realizes
the danger involved. How in the world will he be able to find a single magical gem, amid
a veritable mountain of treasure, without disturbing the ferocious dragon rumored to
sleep beneath all that gold?
We’ve not seen swash so well buckled since the 1987 adaptation of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.

On the other hand, there’s nary a glimmer of the brooding, owl-eyed Gollum, not even a whispered “My precious” in the soundtrack. The gnarly, nasty little goblin is sorely missed, but — again — it’s hard to complain when his place has been taken by the largest, most impressive fire-breathing dragon ever brought to the big screen. (That would be Smaug.)

Jackson’s Tolkien films never do things in a small way, and that continues to be true here. You’ll once again be amazed by the size and scope of these many settings, whether the forest community of the Wood-elves, or the immense underground Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, deep within Lonely Mountain.

Production designer Dan Hennah continues to have a field day with details large and small, aided and abetted by visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri and the army of talented artists at Weta Digital. The finished work is seamless; it’s truly impossible to determine where physical set design leaves off, and the computer-enhanced magic takes over.

We truly live in an age of cinematic wonder, to see a book this vividly, imaginatively rich brought so successfully to the big screen.

Acting verisimilitude also plays a major role, of course, and Martin Freeman remains the pluperfect hobbit: His Bilbo Baggins experiences (endures?) one of the best character arcs in fantasy fiction. No longer frightened by his own shadow, Bilbo has found his courage but also carries an increasingly dangerous secret: the powerful golden ring that grants its wearer invisibility, while inexorably sucking the soul from that same owner.

Freeman’s Bilbo spends much of this story at war with himself: all too aware of the psychic damage he’s enduring, and yet forced — by increasingly dangerous circumstances — to don the ring again, and again, and again.

Alternatively, Freeman is equally precise with comic timing, as with Bilbo’s fiddly hands and suddenly stricken expression, having engineered a perfect getaway plan for his dwarf friends, when he realizes that he has no means of escape. Despite the scene’s tension, we can’t help but laugh. That’s clever writing, deft direction and subtle acting.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Christmas (movie) time is here

Hollywood's annual deluge of "prestige" fare continues to draw us to the big screen every December. The studios recognize full well that America's holiday traditions — family gatherings, lights on the house, decorations on the tree — include a visit or two (or three, or five) to the local multiplex. There's no doubt about it: We love watching movies during these festive days of early winter.

Yes, Virginia, tough guy Robert Mitchum starred in one of the sweetest little Christmas
 films ever made, 1949's Holiday Affair. That's Janet Leigh on the left, years before
Alfred Hitchcock would ignite her career in an entirely different way.
Nor is this behavior confined to the big screen; indeed, it's an even bigger deal at home, with friends and families popping corn, nogging eggs and settling onto the couch, often on Christmas Eve and/or New Year's Eve, in order to watch some beloved classics. And, since it is the season, one's thoughts often turn to holiday-themed movies.

We don't get many of those, these days. Christmas movies used to be a Hollywood staple, decades ago; now they're an endangered species. Which is just as well, because most recent efforts have been lamentable, to say the least. I mean, Fred Claus? Seriously?

Tinseltown seems to have lost the ability to deliver a genuinely heartfelt holiday film, confining all such activity to overblown comedies that inevitably land with the disheartening thud of last year's fruitcake. Sentiment is an ugly word in the States these days — except with made-for-TV movies, particularly on the Hallmark Channel, which confuse sentiment with maudlin, slushy treacle — and yet we crave precisely that during the holiday season. What to do?

I addressed this problem back in 2005, finally responding to a request that all film critics get in December: What's the best holiday film? Give us something different to watch this year. I also was bothered by the tendency — then, as now — for Christmas movie lists to exhibit a singular lack of imagination (and cinema history) by citing the same stuff, time after time. And, so, I compiled a list of the all-time best, worst and most eclectic holiday offerings.

The funny thing is — and it proves my contention above — that list hasn't changed much, in nearly a decade. In fact, it changed only once, in 2011, when (finally!) a new film entered the Top 10. No surprise: It came not from Hollywood, but from our British cousins.

Here, then, is where you'll find my current list of go-to holiday movie suggestions. And if you're curious to learn what changed, you'll find the original article here. If you've seen It's a Wonderful Life or Home Alone a few times too many — although I'd argue that isn't possible — these alternatives should be welcome.

Happy viewing!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Out of the Furnace: Not much warmth

Out of the Furnace (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: R, for strong violence, profanity and drug content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.6.13

I’ll be happy when Hollywood gets over its current fixation on dull, dour and dreary protagonists.

The first encounter between Russell (Christian Bale, right) and the malevolent DeGroat
(Woody Harrelson) is accidental, and the latter suggests that it would be unwise to
invite a second meeting. But this is the sort of grim drama that demands precisely that
subsequent clash, under far more lethal circumstances.
Director/co-scripter Scott Cooper apparently intends his new film to occupy the urban noir territory inhabited by Dennis Lehane or Elmore Leonard, where the mean streets are inhabited by working stiffs just trying to get along, until they lock horns with giggling psychopaths. But Cooper and co-writer Brad Ingelsby haven’t anywhere near the narrative chops of their aforementioned betters, and this new drama plays out like an average episode of TV’s Justified ... minus the gallows humor, and characters about whom we give a damn.

Any kind of humor, for that matter. I won’t accuse Cooper of attempting to out-bleak Cormac McCarthy, but he gets close at times.

The cast can’t be faulted; the actors do everything required of this grim narrative. Indeed, at first blush we can’t help being impressed by a cast that includes Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Sam Shepard, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe and Zoe Saldana. That’s a strong ensemble, and everybody imbues their respective roles with emotional depth and a persuasive sense of presence.

But as the screenplay drones on, our expectations waver. This two-hour flick is v-e-r-y slow, and it becomes apparent that all these people are doomed, in one way or another. The best possible outcome is surviving to be stuck in the dying Rust Belt hamlet of Braddock, Pa., where the local steel mill — which has given honest work to generations of blue-collar workers — is about to shut down.

And the worst? A bullet in the brain. After a tediously contemplative speech.

The absence of hope hangs over this storyline like a shroud; it’s accompanied by a similar absence of any spiritual values. Braddock’s men folk work hard, drink harder, sleep like the dead and then rise to repeat the ritual, day after grinding day. I’d love to acknowledge Cooper and Ingelsby for insightful commentary on the fading American dream, but that would be giving them far too much credit. This saga is simply depressing.

A brief prologue introduces us to Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat, a crafty, ferociously brutal monster with a hair-trigger temper, who clearly is Nobody To Be Messed With. (So, naturally, we can expect our other players to do precisely that.) As has been the case numerous times before, Harrelson is completely believable in such a role; he’s the stuff of ghastly nightmares, his devious grin far scarier than his hardened scowl.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Frozen: Thawed a bit too soon

Frozen (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, and quite needlessly, for action and mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang

Disney’s animated films haven’t been such a much of late, with little of note since 2010’s Tangled. The studio’s traditional animation department has been overshadowed by its Pixar colleagues, who’ve demonstrated a far better understanding of good storytelling.

As Anna searches for her sister, she's first joined by Kristoff and his loyal reindeer Sven;
they then encounter a loving snowman named Olaf, who has been brought to life via
the same magic that has brought a life-threatening winter to the entire land.
I therefore was delighted by the opening act of Frozen, which evokes pleasant memories of the Broadway-esque musical atmosphere delivered so well by Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and the next several features that contributed to Disney’s lock on the 1990s. The prologue of Frozen feels much like Beauty and the Beast, as it establishes key character relationships and the underlying fairy-tale curse that will propel the plot, and this new film also offers several lyrically clever tunes by Tony Award-winner Robert Lopez (The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.

Best of all — at least, at first — these vocals are well integrated into the action, smoothly supplementing the drama in a manner that feels natural.

Alas, that deft marriage of story and song becomes increasingly contrived as we move into the second act, by which point each new tune is greeted with resignation. (“Seriously? Another one?”)

Director/scripters Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee — with an assist from Shane Morris on the story — also lose their narrative’s dramatic heft as we skate into the climactic third act. The suspense wanes, in part because their story lacks a stylishly conniving villain in the mold of Gaston (Beauty and the Beast) or Jafar (Aladdin); this film’s simpering Duke of Weselton hardly qualifies.

(Yes, I’m well aware of the climactic twist. But it’s too little, too late.)

Instead, the drama’s primary threat emanates from one of the heroines, who undergoes a reluctant transformation very much in the mold of Elphaba, in Wicked ... which may not be a coincidence, since that Broadway role was played by Idina Menzel, who also voices the character under discussion in Frozen.

Déjà vu, anyone?

Fairy tale fans who fondly recall Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen will be hard-pressed to find anything familiar in this narrative, except (to a degree) the core premise. Not necessarily a problem, of course, as long as the re-invention is similarly imaginative.