Friday, March 28, 2014

Sabotage: Vicious, vulgar trash

Sabotage (2014) • View trailer 
No stars (turkey). Rating: Rated R, for strong bloody violence and gore, relentless profanity, nudity, drug use and sexuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.28.14

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Our rough 'n' tumble "heroes" — from left, Neck (Josh Holloway), Breacher (Arnold
Schwarzenegger), Pyro (Max Martini) and Tripod (Kevin Vance) — infiltrate a drug cartel
safe house, taking down all opposition while cracking wise. Because real DEA agents
behave like this all the time, donchaknow.
Once upon a time, in the 1980s and early ’90s, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger vied for the crown of box-office action champ: the former riding the momentum of his Rocky and Rambo franchises; the latter embracing a string of solid sci-fi/fantasy entries such as Conan the Barbarian, Predator and — needless to say — The Terminator.

Now they’re in a race to the bottom.

I was astonished — and saddened — when Stallone popped up about a year ago, in the loathsome Bullet to the Head. Exiting that bit of distasteful junk, I couldn’t imagine any (former) big-name star doing worse.

Color me surprised, because along comes Schwarzenegger and this repugnant turkey.

Back in the day, you’d have had to stay up late on a Friday night — at home — to see this sort of grade-Z shoot-’em-up on Cinemax. No self-respecting actor would have signed on for such grindhouse trash, and no self-respecting studio would have dared release such a thing theatrically.

My, how times have changed.

Sabotage isn’t merely offensively, viciously, gratuitously violent; it’s also stupid beyond measure.

Director David Ayer has made a minor splash with gritty urban thrillers such as Harsh Times and Street Kings — don’t feel bad, if they escaped your notice — but his primary Hollywood rep results from his impressive one-two punch as a writer, in 2001: collaborating on The Fast and the Furious, and as sole scripter on Training Day, which brought Denzel Washington an Academy Award.

Based on his subsequent career, Ayer has been chasing the belief that amorality for its own sake is what sells in these United States. Why bother with plot or character, when one can wallow in the sleaze of ghastly depravity?

He has teamed here with co-writer Skip Woods, who also made some noise in 2001, with the stylishly nasty Swordfish, and more recently got involved with glossy action junk such as The A-Team and A Good Day to Die Hard. Nothing to brag about, to be sure, but also nothing to be ashamed of. Until now.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Grandly chaotic

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: Rated R, for profanity, sexual candor and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.21.14

This one’s hard to categorize.

On the one hand, and perhaps most visibly, Wes Anderson’s newest opus is a madcap farce populated by eccentric and oddly polite characters who hearken back to those found within West London’s famed Ealing Studios comedies, during the late 1940s and early ’50s.

With the police hot on their heels, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, left) and his faithful
junior lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), frantically try to figure out where to hide a
priceless Renaissance painting that they have, ah, liberated.
On the other hand, it’s a droll send-up of Agatha Christie mysteries, with suspicious butlers, nosy maids and assorted other shady and avaricious characters, all of them anxious about the contents of a will that keeps throwing up codicils, riders, supplements, postscripts and assorted other appendices, possibly even superseded by the second copy of a second will.

On the third hand, it’s an affectionate ode to an era of more civilized behavior, when traveling strangers regaled each other with fascinating tall tales while enjoying a sumptuous meal; and when courting lovers exchanged passionate letters.

Then, too, there’s an affectionate nod to Inception, with its nested narratives.

And, last but certainly not least, however we choose to define this unapologetically zany melodrama, it most certainly could have come only from the eccentric imagination of director Wes Anderson ... and perhaps that’s the only explanation that matters.

Anderson’s films take place within a fanciful universe of his creation: one slightly off-center from our own, with occasionally familiar cultural landmarks that merely add to the gently bizarre atmosphere, laced with characters who deliver crucial soliloquies and peculiar non-sequitors with equal aplomb, and always with resolutely straight faces.

No character ever laughs at something said by another; at best, the speaker might get a raised eyebrow that Signifies A Great Deal.

In short, Anderson’s films are strange. Very strange, and definitely an acquired taste. I generally swing toward admiration, but not always; his previous outing, Moonrise Kingdom, is a thorough delight ... but I almost couldn’t make it through The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

This one falls somewhere in between, leaning more heavily toward the wacky delights of Moonrise Kingdom. Anderson has concocted the script with co-conspirator Hugo Guinness, claiming inspiration from pre-code 1930s Hollywood comedies and the stories and memoirs of Viennese author Stefan Zweig (!).

Avid film fans with a fondness for old-style filmmaking technique likely will have a ball. Mainstream viewers who casually wander into the theater will be convinced, after only 15 minutes, that the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

And, to be fair, they won’t be wrong.

Divergent: Solid sci-fi teen melodrama

Divergent (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for action, violence, dramatic intensity and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang

Veronica Roth’s fans should be pleased.

Scripters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor have done an impressive job, condensing the author’s debut novel for its big-screen adaptation; it’s not easy fitting 487 pages into a 139-minute film. Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) also deserves credit for guiding a solid cast through a deft blend of character angst and action set-pieces.

As a night of capture-the-flag war games commences, Tris (Shailene Woodley) climbs
an abandoned Ferris wheel in order to secure a superior vantage point, while Four
(Theo James) trails behind. Tris has a lot to prove, having disobeyed orders to join
this late-evening exercise.
Divergent is a polished, well-executed sci-fi melodrama that should have no trouble tapping into the fan base that has devoured the adventures of Harry Potter, Bella Swan and Katniss Everdeen.

Indeed, I deem this first cinematic installment of Roth’s trilogy noticeably superior to the first big-screen chapters of the Twilight and Hunger Games series; Daugherty and Taylor are far better at establishing back-story, and laying the groundwork for the gradually building suspense. By the same token, Roth’s cynical, cautionary take on human nature seems more probable than the gladiatorial nonsense at the heart of Hunger Games, which I’ve always found a rather unlikely pill to swallow.

But the dissolution of a so-called utopian society, due to the greed of one faction? Goodness, we know that to be psychologically sound, and it’s even happening today, in this country; we need look no further than the unchecked avarice of our current one percent.

Casting also plays a significant role, of course, and Divergent also satisfies in that respect. The core young actors are well suited to their respective roles, with star-on-the-rise Shailene Woodley admirably anchoring the narrative.

The story is set in an unspecified future, following some sort of war or cataclysm that has rendered much of the United States uninhabitable (so we’re told). What’s left of the city of Chicago has been re-built into a working civilization that is divided into five factions: Abnegation, for kind, selfless souls who place society above their own interests; Amity, for the peaceful farmers who work the land; Candor, occupied by those who value honesty above all else; Dauntless, the warrior caste that maintains peace and defends the city’s perimeter; and Erudite, for the intelligent researchers who develop and maintain all technological advances.

Upon reaching their 16th birthday, all children take an unusual “aptitude” test, to determine which faction best suits them. Those results aside, they’re allowed to select any faction during the subsequent “Choosing Day.” While most children adhere to the faction of their birth, Choosing Day always delivers a few surprises.

And, once having made this decision, it’s irrevocable. Even if young adults decide that they’re unsuited to their enclave of choice, they cannot change; at best, they can become “factionless” (i.e. homeless street-dwellers).

If this sounds a bit like Harry Potter’s sorting hat and Hogwarts’ four houses ... well, yes, that’s obvious. But Roth’s take on this process is far more intriguing from a psychological standpoint, since it revolves around the struggle between aptitude and free will.

Bad Words: D-I-S-A-P-P-O-I-N-T-I-N-G

Bad Words (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: R, for relentless profanity and crude language, sexual content and brief nudity

By Derrick Bang

While not the total train wreck that its pleading, seemingly anxious social media publicity campaign might suggest, this little flick also isn’t much to write home about.

An unexpected act of kindness by young Chaitanya (the utterly adorable Rohan Chand)
prompts a smile from the curmudgeonly Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), who until this
moment hasn't displayed anything close to a sympathetic bone in his nasty body.
Somehow, though, the sight of Guy looking cheerful is even scarier...
First-time scripter Andrew Dodge definitely wants the Bad Santa vibe, and at times he comes close ... but that dark-dark-dark 2003 comedy was an inspired blend of talent (Billy Bob Thornton) and superior material: a perfect marriage that Dodge too frequently fails to consummate with this film’s Jason Bateman, who both stars and makes his big-screen directing debut.

I’ve never understood Bateman’s appeal. As with Paul Rudd — another over-valued and under-talented, so-called comic player — Bateman swans his way through every role with condescending indifference, as if wanting to ensure that we all understand the big favor he’s doing us, merely by appearing on the screen. It’s an irritating affectation, as far removed from actual acting as a singer lip-synched by somebody off-stage.

But I digress.

Goodness knows, it’s long past time to satirize the rarefied, hyper-competitive world of children’s spelling bees. Given that Jeffrey Blitz’s marvelous documentary — Spellbound — came out more than a decade ago, some sort of comedic riff should have followed within a few years. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for waiting, since Bad Words has the good fortune to ride the serendipitous publicity of the jaw-dropping competition at this year’s Jackson County Spelling Bee, held just a few weeks ago, when the event finale had to be postponed after the remaining two contestants went 66 rounds without breaking their stand-off ... because the organizers ran out of words (!).

Bad Words never quite gets the mix right, however. Humiliating children via edgy humor is a dicey prospect, requiring a razor’s-edge awareness that going too far risks alienating one’s audience. Ultimately, Bateman and Dodge don’t skewer spelling bees with near the wit or snarky panache that, say, director Michael Ritchie and scripter Jerry Belson brought to 1975’s Smile, their dead-on assault on teenage beauty pageants.

I’ll say this for Bad Words, though: All concerned don’t waste any time. At an economical 88 minutes, this unsettling comedy never becomes tedious.

Trouble is, it never quite achieves glory, either.

Bateman stars as Guy Trilby, a smug misanthrope introduced as he crashes a regional qualifier for the prestigious Golden Quill National Spelling Bee. Trilby gets away with this scheme by exploiting a hiccup in the official rules; he never completed eighth grade, and therefore remains eligible ... despite being 40.

Muppets Most Wanted: Sophomore slump

Muppets Most Wanted (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: suitable for all ages, despite a truly meaningless PG rating

By Derrick Bang

At 112 minutes, this return visit with the Muppets is too long.

Director/co-scripter James Bobin starts well, with a droll song-and-dance opener that cleverly cites the various mistakes and shortcomings that plague most sequels ... and then, as this film progresses, he succumbs to almost all of them.

Kermit isn't at all sure about the wisdom of signing a contract with the smarmy Dominic
Badguy (Ricky Gervais), but the rest of the Muppets cast aside any doubts after
hearing about a planned European stage tour. What could possibly go wrong?
For the most part, Bret McKenzie’s songs are lyrically witty and staged in a manner that plays to the well-known character quirks of the large Muppet cast. Wry, Muppet-ized send-ups of classic tunes also prompt a giggle, whether Allen Toussaint’s “Working in the Coal Mine,” the Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Running” or the iconic theme from Titanic, “My Heart Will Go On.”

The problem, eventually, is sheer music overload ... particularly when we factor in nods to Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Wagner, “The Rainbow Connection” and an entire production number lifted whole cloth from A Chorus Line.

Too much music. Way too much music.

Although Muppets Most Wanted is (more or less) propelled by a core plotline, the script — Bobin shares credit with Nicholas Stoller — too frequently feels random and unfocused, as if bits were being concocted on the fly.

It would appear that star Jason Segel had much to do with the success of 2011’s The Muppets, since he also co-wrote that screenplay with Stoller. That predecessor had two solid storylines: The re-assembling of the Muppet troops supplied a great first act, after their long big-screen absence, but the film’s heart came from the unlikely relationship between Segel’s Gary and his Muppet “brother,” Walter.

Muppets Most Wanted lacks that softer side. It’s little more than a series of songs, sight gags and comedy sketches: a format that worked quite well during the half-hour installments of television’s The Muppet Show, back in the late 1970s and early ’80s, but wears thin here and — dare I say it? — grows a bit tedious. Even dull.

And, judging by the increasingly restless behavior of the children present at last weekend’s preview screening, even they got bored. Not a good sign.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Veronica Mars: Back on the case

Veronica Mars (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: Rated PG-13, for profanity, sexual content, drug content and violence

By Derrick Bang

Rob Thomas obviously is an honorable fellow, and he deserves considerable credit.

Veronica (Kristen Bell) is surprised to discover that yet another intimate video of Logan
(Jason Dohring) and his recently murdered girlfriend has been posted to the Internet,
further swaying public opinion into believing that he's guilty of the crime. But this begs
the more pressing question: Who shot this footage, and how?
Mindful that his big-screen Veronica Mars project owes its very existence to the crowd-funded Kickstarter campaign that raised $5.7 million, Thomas — as director and co-scripter, sharing the latter credit with Diane Ruggiero — did his very best to deliver a film that meets fan expectation and smoothly updates events from the cherished 2004-07 TV series ... while also functioning as a self-contained adventure that (hopefully) is approachable to first-time viewers with no reference to the original show.

A tall order, and one that Thomas mostly pulls off.

Full disclosure demands that I acknowledge being one of the 91,585 Kickstarter backers, from 3,655 different cities in 88 countries, who pledged some $$$ to help create this film. It made perfect sense to me, since I’ve also (for example) supported PBS programming with pledges since being old enough to write checks.

As one of the show’s longtime fans — star Kristen Bell refers to us as “marshmallows” — I’m quite pleased by the results. That said, this big-screen Veronica Mars looks and feels less like a full-blown movie, and more like a two-part television episode granted a bit more budgeting juice. I recall, back in the day, that several of the 1960s Man from UNCLE two-parters were re-cut and released theatrically, particularly in foreign countries; this Veronica Mars update shares that pedigree.

Back during Hollywood’s golden age, this would have been a respectable B-feature. Nothing wrong with that; indeed, many so-called B films are remembered far more fondly today, than the higher-prestige A pictures with which they shared billing.

By way of contrast, the many Star Trek films that followed the original show’s three 1960s seasons definitely look like big-screen spectaculars quite far removed from their humbler TV origins. Joss Whedon’s Serenity, as well, granted impressively opulent closure to the short-lived Firefly, which had gone off the air several years earlier.

It’s an intriguing distinction, perhaps having something to do with the modest, easily relatable sensibilities that made Veronica’s television adventures so approachable in the first place. Veronica also owed her quick popularity, in part, to good timing: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (also from Whedon) had just gone off the air, and Thomas’ plucky high school heroine — and the coterie of friends, frenemies and enemies she gradually accumulated — admirably filled the niche left empty after Buffy had staked her last blood-sucker.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Wind Rises: This film soars

The Wind Rises (2013) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rating: Rated PG-13, for dramatic content and disturbing images

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.14.14

Animation fans who think of Hayao Miyazaki’s films solely in terms of fantasy realms and whimsical (sometimes dangerous) supernatural creatures — 2001’s Academy Award-winning Spirited Away having much to do with this genre affiliation — are in for a surprise.

To his amazement, young Jirô (running in foreground) seems to share his dreams with
the flamboyant Caproni, a famed Italian aeronautical engineer who designs planes for
the sheer joy of mechanical artistry. Can a bespectacled country boy hope to do the
same, when he achieves adulthood?
Quite a surprise.

Although The Wind Rises opens with a surreal quality that feels like vintage Miyazaki, focusing on a young country boy smitten by the rhapsodic magic of aircraft, this film is grounded in historical fact: much more biography than imaginative fancy. The year is 1918, the boy is Jirô Horikoshi, and he often finds himself in plane-laden dreams that seem to be shared by famed Italian aeronautical designer Giovanni Battista Caproni, whose bombers played a significant role in World War I ... but who also has far-reaching concepts for peacetime passenger aircraft.

This is mere prologue: the spark that ignites Jirô’s determination to become an aircraft engineer. A few years pass; having reached young adulthood (now voiced, in this dubbed American version, by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Jirô boards a train in order to attend college in Tokyo, little realizing that Miyazaki — employing the artistic license so beloved by writers who play with time and place — has orchestrated an appointment with fate.

What later came to be known as the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 strikes just as Jirô’s train reaches the city outskirts. He meets and rescues Nahoko Satomi (voiced by Emily Blunt), re-uniting her with family while firestorms sweep through the city and surrounding areas. Without much of a backward glance, Jirô then pushes on to his university, where he and new friend Honjô (John Krasinski) do their best to rescue books and other valuable property.

Time passes anew; Jirô and Honjô join the Mitsubishi engineering company in 1927, where they’re constantly browbeaten by their grumpy, imperious boss, Kurokawa (Martin Short). Even so, Jirô’s innovative concepts quickly catch the attention of senior designer Hattori (Mandy Patinkin).

These initial years at Mitsubishi unfold against Japan’s Great Depression, which forces the seriously understaffed and overworked Mitsubishi engineers to labor under significant handicaps. Jirô revels in the work for its own sake, having no outside life to distract him; Honjô supplies some outer-world context by lamenting that their primitive conditions are keeping them 10 years behind superior German designers.

By way of illustrating this disparity, Mitsubishi’s test aircraft must be hauled onto fields by oxen.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Mr. Peabody & Sherman: Lively romp through history

Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: Rated PG, and needlessly, for mild action and brief rude humor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.7.14

As soon as I heard the first pun, I knew we were in good hands.

Stuck in Ancient Egypt, with the furious King Tut's guards in hot pursuit, Mr. Peabody
leads Sherman and Penny back to where he parked their Wayback Machine.
Unfortunately, escape won't be anywhere near that easy...
Sandpaper-dry wit was an essential element of the Peabody’s Improbable History cartoon shorts, which debuted as a portion of the original Rocky and his Friends animated series (ahem) way back in November 1959. The Einstein-smart canine, Mr. Peabody, always capped one of his time-travel lecture/adventures with a groaningly awful pun, which flew right over the heads of younger viewers (and demonstrated the degree to which the cartoon show’s humor played to adults).

This phenomenon is addressed in this new big-screen delight, as young Sherman reacts to each of Mr. Peabody’s deadpan observations by reflexively laughing, and then, with a puzzled expression, saying “I don’t get it.”

Definitely a chuckle, every time.

Director Rob Minkoff and scripter Craig Wright have retained the wit and playful innocence of the original Peabody TV cartoon shorts, while adding a generous dollop of the snarky humor today’s viewers will recognize from the Shrek series. (No surprise, since this new Mr. Peabody & Sherman comes from DreamWorks Animation.)

And the worried Peabody purists out there can rest easy, because Wright clearly understands and employs the narrative and comic sensibilities that properly honor the source material. He gets it.

As further aided and abetted by Minkoff and editor Tom Finan’s zippy pacing, not to mention a droll voice cast, the resulting film is 92 minutes of inventive, larkish delight.

The core premise is that Mr. Peabody (voiced with polite know-it-all-ness by Ty Burrell) is a genius dog who is able to master any craft, skill or intellectual challenge he chooses to embrace. He can out-deduce Sherlock Holmes, and out-MacGyver MacGyver, when it comes to escaping from a hopeless situation.

Genius doesn’t confer companionship, though, so — some years back — Mr. Peabody adopted a foundling infant who now has grown to kidhood. Thus, the core joke: Instead of the usual boy/dog dynamic, these two always are introduced as Mr. Peabody and his boy, Sherman (superbly voiced by Max Charles, of TV’s The Neighbors).

300: Rise of an Empire ... fall of a movie

300: Rise of an Empire (2014) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for constant gory violence, nudity, profanity and a hilarious sex scene

By Derrick Bang

In case anybody has wondered, two hours of gore-porn is a total yawn.

Impressed by the battlefield savvy demonstrated by her enemy, Artemisia (Eva Green)
offers Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) a place at the head of her own army ... and,
as an added inducement, a place in her bed. Will this Athenian commander succumb
to such temptation? Do we care in the slightest?
Director Noam Murro hasn’t the slightest affinity for this material: no surprise, since his only previous big-screen credit is the 2008 comedy bomb, Smart People. I can’t imagine what led Warner Bros. to trust Murro with the sequel to 2006’s unexpectedly popular 300, but, then, I rarely understand what transpires in big-studio pitch meetings.

Not that Murro should shoulder all the blame, with so much to spread around. I doubt any director could have made much of the wafer-thin narrative that scripters Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad audaciously call a screenplay. I always thought writers endeavored to create characters whose thoughts and deeds would engage our emotions, but Snyder and Johnstad apparently believe the same can be accomplished with another splash of blood on the screen.

Not hardly.

Indeed, it’s difficult to remember anything else taking place during this flimsy excuse for a movie. Occasional scenes of stilted, woodenly acted dialogue aside, 300: Rise of an Empire is 102 minutes of disembowelments, severed limbs and decapitations, seasoned with some slashed throats and pierced eyeballs. And most of the interminable battle scenes are filmed in loving slow-motion by cinematographer Simon Duggan, with the gallons of splattered blood inserted later, via CGI sweetening.

If all the melees and close-up hacking and slashing were projected at normal speed, this film probably wouldn’t run more than half an hour. Which would be a good thing.

As an added bonus, this film’s 3D effects were added after the fact, contributing to the overall murky pallor that hangs over every frame. As was the case with Clash of the Titans and numerous other “fake 3D” efforts, many sequences are so dark that it’s difficult to discern what the heck is happening. Call that an unintentional blessing.

As adapted clumsily from Frank Miller’s graphic novel Xerxes — itself a sequel to his graphic novel 300 — this story occurs during the aftermath of the great battle that took place at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., when King Leonidas and his “brave 300” gloriously battled a much larger Persian army to a standstill. For a time.