Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Into the Woods: Doesn't go far enough

Into the Woods (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for thematic elements, fantasy peril and some suggestive material

By Derrick Bang

I never cease being delighted by Stephen Sondheim’s wordcraft wizardry.

His music and lyrics are as ferociously clever as anything concocted by Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter, and as sharply sardonic as the best of mathematician-turned-satirical-tunesmith Tom Lehrer.

The witch (Meryl Streep, right) explains that the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily
Blunt) will need to find four items in order to reverse the curse that has left them unable
to start a family. Naturally, we cannot help feeling that the witch isn't being entirely honest
about why she actually wants these items...
Almost three decades have passed since Sondheim and collaborator James Lapine unleashed Into the Woods, a frothy, thoroughly enchanting what-if musical that takes an unexpectedly mature approach to several classic Grimm fairy tales. Mostly, Sondheim and Lapine imagine what happened next, following the obligatory “happily ever after” fade-out that concludes such stories.

Nothing good, as it turns out.

Broadway classics don’t always transition well to the big screen, in great part because we lose the intimacy that comes from being in a theater with the actors who can bring fire and passion even to material this whimsical. No doubt many have contemplated this particular challenge, since Into the Woods debuted in 1987, but Rob Marshall eventually won the battle.

Certainly he seems a worthy choice, having watched his cinematic adaptation of Chicago take six of its 13 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.

His handling of Into the Woods is unlikely to garner such stellar praise, but not for lack of quality; this simply isn’t as visually dynamic a production, its delights limited chiefly to the way in which the cast brings fresh brio to Sondheim’s lyrics and patter-songs. Production designer Dennis Gassner spends a lot of time with various forest settings that look rather similar; the scenery magic derives more from sfx supervisor Matt Johnson’s various touches, most notably the giant beanstalk that sprouts next to a certain home.

That said, there’s no denying the spectacular splash with which this film opens, cross-cutting between the various sets of characters within the intermingled saga to follow, their desires explicated in the lengthy “Prologue,” the first of Sondheim’s many ingenious songs. Marshall and editor Wyatt Smith have a field day with this stylish production number, a bravura 10 minutes that sets a most impressive stage.

The story is fueled by seemingly reasonable but ultimately ill-advised wishes. In short order, we meet Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who wishes to attend the palace festival; Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), a naïve but kind-hearted boy who wishes that his cow, Milky White, didn’t have to be sold; and the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who wish they could become parents.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Unbroken: A bit underwhelming

Unbroken (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for war violence, brutality and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.26.14

Depicting the human spirit’s strength and indomitable resolve can be a tough sell in the visual realm of the big screen, because so much of that ability is an inward, fundamentally mental challenge.

Dismayed to have come to the direct attention of sadistic concentration camp guard
Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara, right), Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell)
is subjected to a series of increasingly brutal and humiliating ordeals.
And yet we’ve been blessed, this month, by two powerful films that convey precisely that heroic struggle: the first one devoted to a quiet academic who refused to yield — Stephen Hawking, in The Theory of Everything — and now the equally authentic saga of a scrappy athlete driven by equal measures of grit and stubborn fury.

As with Eddie Redmayne’s bravura performance in Theory, director Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of author Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken is fueled by equally riveting work from British actor Jack O’Connell, whose until-now obscurity on these shores is certain to vanish forever. O’Connell is the heart, soul and raw guts of this film, and he achieves the near impossible: He genuinely makes us believe that fresh-faced, Southern California-based Italian immigrant Louis Zamperini could have survived — nay, triumphed over — a series of heart-stopping ordeals that clearly would have felled, and killed, lesser men.

Hillenbrand is the meticulous biographer who in 2001 dazzled readers with her first book: Seabiscuit: An American Legend, which went on to become an equally popular 2003 film. Hillenbrand acknowledges that her research into that famed horse frequently uncovered references to another famous Californian who “could give Seabiscuit a run for his money.” That led to an eight-year “chat” with Zamperini, but only by phone; Hillenbrand didn’t want to meet him in the flesh until after her second book was published.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption hit bookstores in 2010, subsequently spending 185 weeks on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list. It was a natural for film adaptation, and therein lay the challenge: how to bring Zamperini’s amazing story to cinema.

Jolie’s smartest move was casting O’Connell in the lead role, and the young actor absolutely rewards her faith. But while Jolie clearly approached this project with both passion and sensitivity, her directorial touch is too remote: We often feel like distant observers, rather than being intimately connected with these men, and their plight.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Hobbit, The Battle of the Five Armies: At long last, the grand finale!

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for intense fantasy action violence and some truly scary monsters

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.19.14

Peter Jackson certainly knows how to stage a spectacle.

He’d have had a great time during Hollywood’s Golden Age, choreographing the fabled casts of thousands.

As a massive battle between elves, dwarves, humans and nasty orcs rages about them,
Gandalf (Ian McKellen, left) and Bard (Luke Evans) realize that the ghastly orc armies are
being directed by the orc lord Azog the Defiler, standing on a nearby hilltop. Clearly, he
must be stopped ... but how?
That said, he has become a poor judge of narrative structure. Although this final installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit builds to a rousing, suspenseful, crowd-pleasing climax, this cinematic saga definitely didn’t deserve the three-part presentation that seems to have been dictated entirely by commerce.

Consider the irony: We couldn’t get enough of Jackson’s three-part adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and fans eagerly snapped up the extended-edition DVDs, to savor all the additional scenes left on the cutting-room floor. That adulation was entirely warranted, because those three books are extremely dense.

But The Hobbit lacks that complexity; it’s a shorter, single book, and — more significantly — is aimed at a much younger audience. Granted, Jackson and his fellow scripters — Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and horror maestro Guillermo del Toro — drew from the 125 pages of notes and appendices included with modern editions of The Lord of the Ring ... but, even so, this newest trilogy has suffered from bloat since its first installment. (I still haven’t recovered from the slapstick, Disney-esque dwarf songs in Bilbo’s dining room.)

Although the major plot points have been impressively realized, there’s a definite sense of treading water along the way, and extraneous characters we’d be better off without. Notable case in point: the Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry) and his weaselly aide (Mikael Persbrandt), who popped up in the middle installment and return here. They’re no more than stunt casting, particularly in Fry’s case, and their characters seem to have wandered in from a Blackadder installment. Very poor judgment, on Jackson’s part.

More disappointing, though, is the fact that — in this third and final installment — Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins has become a bystander in his own story. That’s a shame on all sorts of levels, not the least of which is the lessened degree to which we’re able to enjoy Freeman’s marvelously subtle performance. I just love the way he twitches his nose, or starts to say something, checks himself, and then decides that silence is the better part of wisdom.

Freeman gets more mileage out of Bilbo’s double-take decisions not to speak, than many of these supporting characters deliver via pages of dialogue.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Best Christmas Movies of All Time

Not quite a decade ago, and responding to a series of similar lists that had popped up immediately before and after the millennial change, I put considerable thought into my own tabulation of the best (and worst) Christmas movies of all time.

A single 10-film list obviously wasn't sufficient, so I broke it down into various categories, in order to include most-people-think-of-them-classics, less obvious alternatives and even seasonal TV specials. And the turkeys, of course; the Hollywood graveyard is littered with Christmas movie flops.

The list remained unchanged until 2011, when one newcomer pushed another title off the list. Since then, no further amendments ... and no surprise there, since holiday-themed movies have been rather sparse during the past three years. Goodness, there really aren't any this year!

So if you want to know which version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol made my list, or if you're seeking something you've not watched 13 times, check out the list. I guarantee you'll find a few titles worth viewing on December 24 or 25.

Ho, ho, ho!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Top Five: My walk with Andre

Top Five (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for strong sexual content, drug use, nudity, crude humor and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.12.14

Caught an interesting film the other day.

Concerns a disillusioned movie star who, having turned his back on a crowd-pleasing and profitable pop-culture franchise, attempts to re-invent himself as a serious actor by writing, directing and starring in a highly unlikely vanity project. And, to make things more intriguing, this film’s approach and directorial style are self-referential to the point where real life and reel life blur before our eyes.

Much as he hates to play along, Andre (Chris Rock) agrees to smile for the ubiquitous
cameras on behalf of his fiancée, Erica (Gabrielle Union), a realty TV star who insists that
her entire life take place in full view of her devoted fans.
No, I’m not talking about Birdman. As it happens, I’m referring to Chris Rock’s Top Five.

Yes, Virginia; it would appear that these Hollywood types have been reading each other’s mail again.

I mean, seriously, how does this happen? How many forlorn, anguished twentysomething women attempted to find themselves via thousand-mile solo treks through wilderness in the late 20th century? And within months of each other, we get biographical movies about both of them?

The celluloid gods do work in mysterious ways.

But I digress.

Although Top Five doesn’t have the ambition or directorial pizzazz of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, the similarities are strong ... as is Rock’s savage indictment of today’s vanity-laden, social media-obsessed excuse for popular entertainment. And, much the way Iñárritu employed cinematic legerdemain to add visual snap to his narrative, Rock employs the rat-a-tat delivery of stand-up comedy to tell the story of New York City-based comedian-turned-film star Andre Allen’s effort to re-cast his career in a manner that fans aren’t about to embrace.

The results are uneven, with some of Andre’s sidebar detours plunging too far into wince-inducing vulgarity, but there’s no denying the shrewd, insightful analysis of how we tend to devour our celebrities these days. We must remember that Rock masterminded four hilarious and sharply savvy seasons of TV’s Everybody Loves Chris, which unerringly skewered school- and family-induced teen angst while simultaneously being quite funny.

Andre (played by Rock), as far as his fans are concerned, hasn’t been funny for a long time. He abandoned stand-up years ago, seeking success in Hollywood; he found it in a series of slapstick Hammy the Bear action comedies where only his voice could be recognized beneath his fur-laden costume. Needless to say, the artistic returns have been limited. (Imagine if Tim Allen, having graduated from the improv stage, achieved fame solely as the voice of Buzz Lightyear in Pixar’s Toy Story franchise.)

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Theory of Everything: A beautiful mind

The Theory of Everything (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for dramatic intensity and mild suggestive material

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.5.14

It’s necessary, up front, to recognize that this film is adapted from Jane Wilde Hawking’s 1999 memoir, Music to Move the Stars: A Life with Stephen (extensively updated and re-published in 2008, as Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen).

During Cambridge's annual May Dance, Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) can't quite get into the
spirit of the event itself — for openers, he refuses to dance! — but his goofy charm
nonetheless makes an increasingly strong impact on Jane (Felicity Jones).
We therefore cannot be surprised by the saintly hue that Felicity Jones brings to her portrayal of Jane: devoted, compassionate and (particularly) patient beyond comprehension. To be sure, selfless caregivers certainly exist in real life: quiet heroes who rarely receive the admiration they so richly deserve. And there’s no doubt that Jane Hawking must’ve had a very hard life, during her early years with a husband succumbing to motor neuron disease (MND, which is related to ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

But no displays of impatience or hostility, no raging against the universe, no signs of crumbling on Jane’s part? Even if we acknowledge traditional British reserve, that’s a bit hard to swallow here.

Hard, perhaps, but not impossible ... thanks to James Marsh’s thoughtful, sensitive direction, and the incandescent performances by Jones and most particularly Eddie Redmayne. The latter looks, moves and sounds so much like Stephen Hawking, that at times it’s hard not to believe it’s actually him on the screen.

Most crucially, Redmayne captures Hawking’s goofy grin, sparkling eyes and irrepressible, Puckish sense of humor. After the MND robs the man of his limbs — and, eventually, even his ability to speak — Redmayne nonetheless continues to convey a wealth of emotion with faint head movements, raised eyebrows, a twitch of that famous smile, and his darting, ever-inquisitive eyes that miss nothing.

We’ve not seen an actor so thoroughly inhabit a physically challenged role since Mathieu Amalric’s portrayal of Jean-Dominique Bauby, in 2007’s equally fine The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Bauby’s life changed in an instant, though, whereas Hawking — and his friends, colleagues and family — endured the heartbreak of his slow, debilitating slide into utter helplessness.

But we begin in happier times. It’s 1963, where Stephen is a cosmology student at Cambridge University: the mischievous, easily distracted member of a doctoral team being supervised by famed British physicist Dennis W. Sciama (David Thewlis, in a nicely understated performance). Stephen’s apparent disconnection from real-world requirements is a source of constant amusement to roommate and best friend Brian (Harry Lloyd), who probably has to remind his buddy to eat and sleep on a regular basis.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Horrible Bosses 2: Fire 'em all!

Horrible Bosses 2 (2014) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated R, for relentless profanity and crude sexual content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.28.14

Director Sean Anders apparently was content to let this film’s three stars — Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day — babble through much of their obviously improvised, rapid-fire dialogue.

Oddly enough, Rex (Chris Pine, right) doesn't seem all that bothered after learning that our
inept heroes — from left, Dale (Charlie Day), Nick (Jason Bateman) and Kurt (Jason
Sudeikis) — planned to kidnap him. Seems that Rex has his own issues with his wealthy,
overbearing father...
Sometimes the results are amusing.

Usually ... not.

Dumb-bunny comedies often aren’t nearly as funny as those involved seem to think, and that’s definitely the case here. Nor are the “even funnier” out-takes, which unspool over the closing credits, as uproarious as Bateman, Sudeikis, Day and their co-stars want us to believe.

This film’s 2011 predecessor was pretty thin gruel to begin with: a potty-mouthed waste of time and talent that was little more than a race to the tasteless bottom by all involved. The notion that it did enough business to warrant a sequel is astonishing, but Hollywood — as always — lives by the quote often attributed to H.L. Mencken: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”

And so here we are, with a second dose of Nick (Bateman), Kurt (Sudeikis) and Dale (Day).

This new entry is slightly better, thanks to the presence of co-star Chris Pine. He thoroughly embraces his gleefully condescending, spoiled rich guy role with a breezy élan that adds momentum to this fitful comedy every time he pops into a scene. He’s genuinely funny, and manages to be such without relying on the vulgarity that’s pretty much everybody else’s sole defining character trait.

The plot, then:

Having decided that working for “horrible bosses” undervalues their true potential, Nick, Kurt and Dale have become entrepreneurs with their own home care product: the so-called “Shower Buddy,” just the sort of gadget that pops up on late-night TV commercials for $19.95. Their effort to promote this item on a local morning chat show doesn’t quite work as expected, but the exposure does bring them to the attention of father-and-son investors Bert and Rex Hanson (Christoph Waltz and Pine).

Overjoyed by an initial order of 100,000 units, our three stooges overlook the cautionary step of obtaining a down payment in order to fund this massive production run. Bert subsequently cancels the order — which he intended to do all along — knowing full well that Nick, Kurt and Dale will be forced to foreclose. At that point, the Hansons will scoop up the entire company and all those Shower Buddies at fire-sale prices.

It’s merely standard-issue corporate raider behavior, which Bert cheerfully acknowledges, knowing full well that our hapless idiots can’t do anything about it.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 — Fails to catch fire

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, disturbing action and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.21.14

As was true of its two predecessors, this newest big-screen installment in the Hunger Games franchise follows its source quite closely.

Which, in this case, isn’t a good thing.

When Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, foreground right) agrees to check on the injured civilians
in a District 8 hospital, she's joined by, from left, Commander Paylor (Patina Miller) Gale
(Liam Hemsworth), Boggs (Mahershala Ali) and Pollux (Elden Henson).
Suzanne Collins’ third novel is gawdawful: a complete betrayal of her characters, and of her readers. I can’t imagine what the author was smoking when she wrote it, but this much is obvious: Her heart wasn’t in it, and — in hindsight — she should have quit after the first one.

My sympathies therefore lie with scripters Peter Craig and Danny Strong, tasked with making a cinematic silk purse out of this sow’s ear of a book. With credits such as The Town, Game Change and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, they seem an odd choice to craft a post-apocalyptic narrative that spends so much time inside the head of a strong and resourceful young woman, which may explain why Katniss Everdeen is such a mess in this film.

Not even Jennifer Lawrence, who aside from her considerable talent certainly knows this character by now, can persuasively deliver the frankly ludicrous emotional arcs demanded by this storyline.

On top of which, this film suffers the problem that plagued the penultimate Harry Potter film. Both J.K. Rowling’s The Deathly Hallows and Collins’ Mockingjay save most of their action for the second half, limiting the first portions to sidebar exposition and increasingly melodramatic angst.

If Hollywood, in its cynical desire to wring as much money as possible from these franchises, chops each final book in half, we’re therefore tormented with a two-hour film “teaser” that accomplishes ... almost nothing. Harry Potter 7.1 was a yawn: a time-filler that should have been subtitled Harry and Hermione Go Camping.

Hunger Games 3.1, in turn, should be dubbed Katniss Has a Good Cry. Repeatedly.

It’s not that Katniss doesn’t deserve an emotional collapse; goodness knows, she has been through a lot during the year-plus covered by the first two books (and films). But it’s distressing to see a character who initially impressed us as a resourceful fighter, suddenly transformed into a near-helpless victim who gets acted upon.

Granted, Katniss is destined to regain her spunk as things continue, but that’s a discussion for next year’s Hunger Games 3.2.

Meanwhile, we’re stuck with this one.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Foxcatcher: Men behaving badly

Foxcatcher (2014) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, drug use and violence

By Derrick Bang

The über-rich haven’t been this creepy since 1990’s Reversal of Fortune.

And that was based on a true story, as well.

John Du Pont (Steve Carell, left) knows precisely how to inspire the impressionable Mark
Schultz (Channing Tatum), and for a time the weathy older man seems well-meaning, if
a bit daft. But this relationship dynamic is about to turn very, very uncomfortable.
Foxcatcher is director Bennett Miller’s highly unsettling account of wealthy heir John du Pont’s bewildering (to the outside world) decision to position himself as head coach, trainer and sponsor of the U.S. wrestling team hoping to qualify for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. This scheme is granted public legitimacy when brothers Mark and Dave Schultz are dragged into du Pont’s ludicrous, vanity-laden quest, accelerating an already uncomfortable sibling dynamic that becomes increasingly toxic.

Disaster is inevitable; the only question is what form the crisis will take.

Miller excels at getting the best from his casts, and he’s noted for guiding actors to Oscar nominations — and wins — in compelling, character-driven slices of history. Both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener earned well-deserved nominations for Capote; Hoffman went home with the prize. Brad Pitt never looked better than he was in Moneyball, and Miller worked a modern miracle by orchestrating goofball Jonah Hill’s transformation into a serious actor.

But it’s equally important to note that Miller surrounds himself with some of Hollywood’s most skilled writers, who also earned Academy Award nominations (respectively) for their work on Capote and Moneyball. I’ve absolutely no doubt that E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman will garner similar praise for their insidiously subtle, squirm-inducing depiction of what emerged as the late 1980s’ most bizarre sports scandal.

But it’s hard to detect the fine-tuned screenplay right away, because of the almost scary degree to which this film’s three stars inhabit their respective roles. They’re all excellent, crossing that threshold where we often forget the actor playing the part, and wholly accept that we’ve somehow been transported back in time, and granted a window on the activities of these actual people.

Dave and younger brother Mark Schultz were heroes at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, both taking gold medals in different weight classes of men’s freestyle wrestling; they also took world golds at, respectively, Kiev (1983) and Budapest (1985).

They’re played here by Mark Ruffalo (almost unrecognizable) and Channing Tatum. The film’s narrative catches them during the early build-up to Seoul, and their circumstances couldn’t be more different. As often is the case with siblings, their personalities are wholly distinct. Dave radiates calm, confidence and authority; Mark, although idolizing his older brother, chafes at being in his shadow.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Whiplash: A brutal beat

Whiplash (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.14.14

Hard-charging instructors, so the theory goes, have a greater impact on one’s determination to succeed. As this story’s band coach insists, during one of his rare quiet moments, no two words in the English language can do more damage than a polite, “Good job.”

Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, right) is gentle with trainee drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) for
about 15 seconds ... after which the young student quickly begins to fear his new
instructor's dismissive gestures and increasingly impatient growl of "Not my tempo!"
Ah, but at what point do aggressive boot camp tactics become damaging emotional abuse? And, given the potential goal, does that distinction even matter?

Such questions are at the heart of writer/director Damien Chazelle’s riveting Whiplash, a fierce contest of wills between a promising drum student and a vicious, perfectionist instructor. Although Chazelle opens the setting up as much as possible, it’s often hard to escape the impression that we’re watching a brutal, two-handed stage play; the acting is that intense.

As the take-no-prisoners Terence Fletcher, veteran character actor J.K. Simmons finally gets a well-deserved starring spotlight: an opportunity he seizes with the ferocity of a shark going in for the kill. Although Fletcher isn’t above physical violence, he’s much more comfortable with mocking psychological warfare, with a shrewd eye for the exploiting a victim’s soft underbelly.

Forever dressed in dark black, Fletcher initially seems a well-meaning if needlessly profane purist ... but Simmons quickly disabuses us of that mistaken impression. The inventive complexity of his profane outbursts might make us chuckle, but it’s nervous laughter at best. It’s all too easy to believe this guy capable of leaping through the screen and ripping our throats out.

Put simply, Fletcher is a bully: a deliberately cruel sociopath who excuses his bestial behavior on the basis of artistic clarity. Simmons is so viciously effective in this role — so memorably nightmarish — that it’s impossible to take our eyes off him. We cringe each time he twists a hand into the clutched fist that signals his musicians to stop, knowing that yet another verbal brow-beating is seconds away.

However impressive the result, from the standpoint of galvanic acting chops, this isn’t a film to be “enjoyed,” in the vicarious sense of the term. This is a nasty, debilitating contest between director and viewer, much like the battle of wills raging between the story’s teacher and pupil.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Interstellar: Way, way out

Interstellar (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, perilous action and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.7.14

Nobody could accuse Christopher Nolan of possessing modest ambitions.

His newest big-screen extravaganza is a grim sci-fi drama that could be viewed as a reverential blend of 1951’s When Worlds Collide and 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with additional nods to 1972’s Silent Running and Robert Heinlein’s 1956 novel, Time for the Stars.

When a solar-powered drone cuts across the sky above their corn field — a striking
reminder of science long absent from a decaying United States — Cooper (Matthew
McConaughey, left) attempts to hijack it while being watched by children Murphy
(Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet).
Along with — and this is a problem — the bleak despair and distasteful human behavior found in the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road.

I had the same problem with 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s final entry in his otherwise impressive Batman trilogy. He and co-scripter (and real-world brother) Jonathan have a harsh view of people facing large-scale calamity, a trait shared with novelist Stephen King, at his gloomier moments. All three tend to assume the worst from mob mentality, with little of the nobler instincts that might make our race worth saving.

Then again, perhaps I’m unduly optimistic, choosing to believe better of my fellow citizens.

Such philosophical musings aside, Christopher Nolan has, over time, focused more on high-concept narratives and visual pizzazz, and less on character development. That’s a bigger problem. His dream-within-a-dream-laden Inception may have been a jaw-dropping head trip, but its characters were flat, sterile and uninvolving: two-dimensional archetypes about whom we didn’t give a damn.

Nolan has become more puppet master than actor-oriented director, manipulating his characters solely to maximize unexpected plot developments, as opposed to allowing them behavior that seems recognizably credible. In a way, then, Nolan is akin to his dueling magicians in The Prestige — Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale — forever tricking each other for the sheer sake of one-upmanship.

That’s not as immediately noticeable with this new film, mostly because Matthew McConaughey delivers enough agonized angst to carry the first two acts. He has matured into a richly expressive actor, and several of his scenes here are heartbreaking: none more so than the manner in which his character’s face yields to uncontrolled sobs, while catching up with some long-distance correspondence.

But that comes much later.

Big Hero 6: Rather insubstantial

Big Hero 6 (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, and needlessly, for animated action

By Derrick Bang

This film has a serious identity crisis.

Although it begins as a gentle character saga about a boy and his plus-size Personal Healthcare Companion — read: big, poofy robot — co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams rather abruptly changes things up in the second act, and suddenly we’re watching a frenetic action comedy that feels like an alternate-universe take on the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

Is there such a thing as too much comfort? After expressing some fairly trivial frustration,
Hiro discovers that his new Personal Healthcare Companion — dubbed Baymax — has
the "perfect" solution: an all-enveloping hug.
Frankly, it felt like whiplash.

Far more troublesome is this film’s frequent echoes of The Incredibles and How to Train Your Dragon: derivative chunks at times so glaring, that they’re impossible to overlook. The result feels less like an organic concept built from a carefully plotted narrative, and more like a movie designed by committee, and determined to hit crowd-pleasing notes ... a suspicion sharpened by the presence of eight (!) credited scripters.

Indeed, the out-of-left-field shift in tone is as clumsy as the mid-film transition that also spoiled the second half of Pixar’s Brave. And since John Lasseter has the executive producer’s credit on this newest Disney release, the buck obviously stops at his desk.

On the positive side, Big Hero 6 certainly is entertaining, and it’s laden with both laughs and moments of well-timed pathos. But the storyline remains something of a mess, and ultimately feels like a very clumsy attempt to build a new franchise.

The setting is a vibrant, tech-laden future in the massive Northern California city of San Fransokyo: very much a cheerful, gaily colored response to the polyglot Amero-Asian backdrop of Blade Runner. Fourteen-year-old Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter, of the TV series Supah Ninjas) is a genius inventor but also something of a tear-away, spending his evenings hustling opponents at illegal underground robot duels.

These hijinks are a source of constant frustration to older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) and their Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph), the latter charged with the two boys’ care after the never-explained death of their parents. Hoping to channel Hiro’s energy in a more positive direction, Tadashi introduces younger bro to his colleagues at the prestigious San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, and particularly to its head instructor: world-renowned roboticist Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell).

Callaghan, seeing great potential in the boy, encourages Hiro to apply for admission. Our young hero, immediately star-struck by these nifty-gee-whiz surroundings, needs no encouragement.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Birdman: A dark comedy that soars

Birdman (2014) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for relentless profanity, sexual candor and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.31.14

This isn’t merely a movie; it’s a bravura display of cinematic pizzazz as mesmerizing as its three starring performances.

This one demands repeat viewing. First time out, you’ll be overwhelmed by the stylistic approach — dazzlingly so, to the point of wanting to applaud — and then you’ll need a second round to better appreciate everything else going on.

When Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton, left) learns that co-star Mike Shiner (Edward
Norton) has hijacked some of his best personal material for a lavish newspaper interview,
raw fury propels the two men into the sort of laughably flimsy fist-fight that one would
expect from two guys who haven't the faintest idea how to throw a punch.
We’ve never seen anything quite like this.

Granted, director/co-scripter Alejandro González Iñárritu borrows respectfully from predecessors going all the way back to Robert Wiene (1920’s silent The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), with strong nods toward Alfred Hitchcock (1948’s Rope), Roman Polanski (1965’s Repulsion) and Paddy Chayefsky (1976’s Network).

Much more recently, Joe Wright attempted similar cinematographic trickery with 2012’s Anna Karenina, but with far less success; the stage-bound stylization called too much attention to itself, at the expense of the story.

But that, too, is the genius of Iñárritu’s Birdman: The audacious approach is part of the story, indeed the throbbing heartbeat of an exhilarating descent into artistic madness, whose pulse is amplified by a score devoted solely to Grammy Award-winner Antonio Sanchez’s percussive drumming.

That latter affectation is jarring at first, particularly as Sanchez’s efforts become pervasive, his shifting tempos altering the story’s rhythm and pace in a manner normally handled by cutting wizardry. But editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione seemingly have very little to do in this film, because cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s brilliantly composed scenes are — like our central character’s relentless fever dream — one long tracking shot.

Yep. For 119 minutes. Over the course of this narrative’s roughly three days and nights.

Not entirely true, of course, which is why that word — seemingly — is so crucial. Despite having the appearance of a single extended take, Iñárritu, Lubezki, Crise and Mirrione collaborate quite cleverly to convey this illusion ... just as everything that happens on a Broadway stage is pure artifice.

Except when it isn’t, which is the whole point here. Even before we dive into his rapidly unraveling psyche, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) has lost the ability to separate his actual life from what takes place on stage; his performer’s artifice may be the only thing helping him cling to whatever remains of his sanity. Indeed, how many actors, stretching back centuries, have insisted that they only come alive each night, when they hit their marks ... their vivid, full-color nighttime dreams far more real to them than the washed-out black-and-white of their actual lives?

Before I Go to Sleep: A dull, contrived snooze

Before I Go to Sleep (2014) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for violence, pointless profanity and fleeting nudity

By Derrick Bang

This modest thriller opens with an intriguing first act, loses momentum in the second, slides into stupidsville during the climax, and concludes with a sappy epilogue that drew well-deserved snickers of disgust from Wednesday evening’s preview audience.

Truly, a lamentable waste of an A-list cast.

Breakfast is always the worst time of day for Christine Nicole Kidman), for it's when she
 must attempt to absorb two decades' worth of details about a long and happy life spent
with husband Ben (Colin Firth), whom she cannot remember from one day to the next.
UK author S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep was an auspicious debut novel in the spring of 2011, climbing bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic, earning translations in more than 40 countries, and galloping home with two significant crime writers’ awards. I can only assume that the premise and execution worked far better on the printed page than here, via director Rowan Joffe’s screenplay ... although I note that even some of Watson’s complimentary critics complained about his contrived denouement.

Actually, contrived isn’t strong enough. As executed by Joffe — a clumsy scripter thus far known for leaden adaptations of thrillers by Martin Booth (The American) and Graham Greene (Brighton Rock) — this manipulative psychological mystery completely falls apart during post-mortem analysis. It utterly fails the “driving home” test, as unhappy patrons pick apart details and plot element which, in the final analysis, don’t make sense and simply couldn’t happen in the real world.

Which is a shame, because — as a director — Joffe establishes a reasonably tense and unsettling atmosphere as the story begins.

Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) wakes each morning frightened and confused, in a bed, bedroom and house that are wholly unfamiliar, having slept next to a man who appears a total stranger. That would be Ben (Colin Firth), who gently, patiently explains that he’s her husband, and that they’ve been married for years. She doesn’t remember any of this, he continues — quiet despair clouding his eyes, as we realize that he has repeated this well-worn script hundreds (thousands?) of times — because she suffers from psychogenic amnesia, the result of a traumatic traffic accident.

Christine begins each day believing that she’s still a single woman in her 20s, when, in fact, she’s a 40-year-old wife. She can absorb and process information each day — assisted by displays of photos and messages that Ben has posted throughout their house — but she forgets all the “new” information each time she sleeps. And then, the following morning, the whole heartbreaking ritual takes place again.

Kidman is persuasively disoriented, her wary eyes flickering between this man she doesn’t recognize, to the rooms of a strange home that are filled with photographic reminders of years spent with him: wedding and vacation pictures, casual shots of her wearing clothes that hang in the closets ... everything that indicates a long and deliriously happy life at Ben’s side.

Ben heads for work each weekday morning — he teaches at a nearby school — and leaves Christine to re-discover her life, become re-acquainted with her surroundings. By dinnertime each evening, she has come to accept and appreciate how ghastly this is for her: and also for sad, faithful Ben, who clearly hopes that, the following morning, she’ll know who she is without being prompted.

But no; the pattern has remained fixed for years.

Friday, October 24, 2014

St. Vincent: Quite a character

St. Vincent (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for sexual candor, mature thematic content and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.24.14

Bill Murray gets more emotional complexity out of a dangling cigarette, than most actors could generate via three pages of dialogue.

Intending to teach an all-important work ethic to young Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), Vincent
(Bill Murray) orders the boy to mow the yard ... despite the fact that actual blades of grass
are long gone, leaving nothing but dirt and dust behind.
He fires on all cylinders in this cheerfully caustic dramedy from writer/director Theodore Melfi, as polished a feature debut as one could hope for. (While he also co-wrote and directed Winding Roads back in 1999, that never made it past the film festival circuit ... so it doesn’t really count.)

Murray’s sterling presence aside, this film also boasts the best curmudgeon/trusting little boy dynamic since Billy Bob Thornton terrorized young Brett Kelly, in Bad Santa. But this film’s Jaeden Lieberher is a much stronger actor ... in his first film role, no less.

Cranky old coots are a cinematic staple going all the way back to W.C. Fields, who quite notoriously admitted to liking children “if they’re properly cooked.” More recent examples include Jack Nicholson, in As Good As You Get, and Clint Eastwood, in Gran Torino.

The hallmark of a truly sublime performance, however, comes with an actor’s ability to embrace and re-invent a timeworn cliché: to utterly own what once was a stereotype, and make it his own. Murray’s work here is just that sort of revelation.

His Vincent is a crusty, ill-kempt slob who occupies an equally dilapidated house in one of Brooklyn’s fading Sheepshead Bay side streets. An average afternoon involves several losses at the local racetrack, where quietly dangerous loan shark Zucko (Terrence Howard) warns about past-due debts, after which Vincent kills the rest of the day on a well-worn stool at a bar where everybody knows his name. And that he drinks too much.

Meals are an afterthought. The one treasure in Vincent’s life is his fluffy white cat, Felix, who definitely dines better than his master. Even after-hours sessions with his favorite stripper, a Russian “exotic dancer” named Daka (Naomi Watts), are more formality than pleasure; Vincent can’t even be bothered to stop smoking, or remove his clothes, while, ah, doing the nasty.

We’re somehow unsurprised to see that Daka is quite pregnant, not that this has slowed her strip club routines. Much. Yet. Watts has a great time with this feisty role, mangling the English language with straight-faced aplomb. Daka also is the only person who routinely stands up to Vincent, giving as good as she gets.