Friday, May 23, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past — One for the ages

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for nonstop action violence, considerable grim content and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.23.14

This one cooks.

The X-Men film series has earned high marks from its debut back in 2000, notwithstanding the frustrating rival studio issues that prevent these characters from operating within the larger tapestry of the “Marvel Universe” project that includes Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Avengers.

After learning that black-ops types plan to conduct dangerous — even lethal — medical
experiments on some helpless mutants, a furious Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, second
from right) gets quite irate with the goons responsible, while helping the others escape.
Director Bryan Singer got Marvel’s “merry mutants” off to an excellent start with the first two films, and he returns here, batteries fully charged, for a rip-snortin’ adventure that satisfies on every level.

Longtime comic book fans, who’ve followed these characters since their debut back in September 1963, can point to three periods of writer/artist genius during the series’ half-century history. Old-timers still cite the Roy Thomas/Neal Adams run, despite its brevity, as the highlight of 1969 and early ’70. The subsequent generation scoffs at that choice, pointing instead to the bravura Chris Claremont/Jim Lee run from 1989 through ’91.

In between, though, we enjoyed four years of greatness from late 1977 through early ’81, thanks to Claremont’s imaginative stories and artist/co-author John Byrne’s artwork. And that run produced a two-parter, “Days of Future Past,” which remains one of the all-time best comic book stories, anywhere ... not to mention one of the most ingenious time-travel narratives ever concocted (and cited as such in a recent issue of the British pop culture magazine SFX).

Fan reaction was guarded, when word broke that this new X-Men film would adapt that classic tale. Doing it justice would be difficult enough; carefully sliding it into the big-screen mythos already established by the first three films and 2011’s X-Men: First Class, even harder. Screenwriters Simon Kinberg, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn therefore deserve considerable credit, because they pulled it off. And then some.

Failing to give Claremont and Byrne a “story by” acknowledgment, however, is utterly indefensible. And I rather doubt that Claremont was mollified by his eyeblink cameo.

To a degree, this film also has been shaped by the wattage of its primary stars, most notably Jennifer Lawrence, who has become huge since first playing the shape-shifting Raven/Mystique in First Class. Hugh Jackman’s ultra-cool Wolverine also is front and center, as are James McAvoy’s angst-ridden Charlie Xavier and Michael Fassbender’s smoothly malevolent Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto.

But wait, I hear you cry. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen also appear in this adventure ... and aren’t they also Xavier and Magneto?

Well, yes ... and that’s the nature of time-travel stories. Done properly, we get to eat our cake, and have it, too. And this is one tasty treat.

Blended: Pulverized

Blended (2014) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for crude content, sexual candor and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

A modest but fairly decent romantic comedy lurks somewhere within the clumsy, bloated mess of this movie, but it’s damn hard to find.

Years removed from the dating scene, Jim (Adam Sandler) sets up a blind date with
Lauren (Drew Barrymore) at the local Hooters. First impressions aren't so hot; second
impressions are even worse. So, naturally, these two will be seeing a lot more of each
other. Because, otherwise, we wouldn't have a movie (not necessarily a bad thing).
As often has been the case with Adam Sandler’s recent films, the actor seems at war with his own conflicting sensibilities: a perceived need to reward fans who expect the vulgar, gross-out slapstick of his early career; and an honest desire to veer toward gentler, family-friendly material.

The results can be awkward, to say the least, as we’ve already seen in his two Grown Ups entries, each of which tried for aw-shucks, feel-good moments that simply didn’t gel with the sexist, moronic “humor” targeted more specifically at arrested adolescent males.

You’ll find the same unwieldy mix in Blended, Sandler’s third — and least satisfying — pairing with co-star Drew Barrymore. I can’t help wondering if Sandler views Barrymore as his lucky token, given that their first collaboration, 1998’s The Wedding Singer, remains one of his most satisfying films. (Mind you, we’re still not talking Shakespeare; a “superior” Sandler comedy doesn’t raise the bar very high.)

Their sophomore team-up — 2004’s 50 First Dates — wasn’t quite as successful, but its virtues still overshadowed the coarse and tasteless elements that by then had become a stronger part of Sandler’s oeuvre.

All of which brings us to Blended, which can be viewed as something of a cinematic Hail Mary play, coming in the wake of gawdawful bombs such as Jack and Jill and That’s My Boy. (Frankly, Sandler’s only truly entertaining movie of late was HotelTransylvania, and it starred only his voice.) Unfortunately, Blended is yet another flick that doesn’t know what it wants to be, when it grows up: a flaw directly attributed to the haphazard script from Ivan Menchell and Clare Sera, making inept big-screen writing debuts.

The results are all over the map, and director Frank Coraci doesn’t help much. Although he helmed the aforementioned Wedding Singer, more recently he has been responsible for the numb-nuts Kevin James comedies Zookeeper and Here Comes the Boom. So let’s just say that Coraci’s tendencies aren’t likely to support any of Sandler’s efforts to channel his kinder, gentler self.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Godzilla: Radioactive waste

Godzilla (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem, creature violence and civilian casualties

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.16.14

The good stuff, up front:

Fairness demands that I acknowledge visual effects supervisor Jim Rygiel and production designer Owen Paterson, who have done a superb job with this film’s monster mayhem. As also was the case with last year’s Pacific Rim, the massive sense of scale is handled quite persuasively, and Northern California audiences will get a kick out of seeing familiar San Francisco landmarks flattened like pancakes.

When Godzilla trails a winged, radiation-chomping MUTO (Massive Unidentified
Terrestrial Organism) to San Francisco, you just know the Golden Gate Bridge
will be toast!
Additionally, our dino-sized star is granted a quite distinctive personality.


If mankind as a whole behaved as inanely as the cretins in this narrative, the monsters would deserve to win.

Writers Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham have concocted a truly absurd premise, and their dialogue sparks unintentional laughter at every turn. This is purple, afternoon-soap melodrama at its absolute worst, and matters aren’t helped by director Gareth Edwards’ insistence that his actors deliver all their lines with the sort of clipped, wooden stoicism we associate with stuff that routinely got skewered on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

OK, let’s assume — for the sake of argument — that Edwards & Co. deliberately tried to imitate the hilariously grave tone of the post-atomic sci-fi flicks back in the 1950s. That would suggest we treat this update of Godzilla as high camp: the sort of romp that becomes entertaining precisely because it IS so solemnly sincere.

Except that this clearly wasn’t Edwards’ intention, given how he has insisted, in pre-publicity interviews, that Hollywood hasn’t delivered enough “serious takes on giant-monster movies.” Hate to tell you, Gareth, but you’ve not improved that situation.

So, maybe he’s so clumsy that he didn’t realize he was trying for camp. That still doesn’t work, because the aforementioned mayhem includes multitudes of civilian fatalities, with some folks perishing quite horribly. Edwards goes for the same death-by-apocalyptic spectacle that made previous doomsday popcorn flicks such as 2012 and last summer’s Man of Steel so unsettling.

Some films of this nature have begun to display a level of gleeful, kid-like callousness that evokes images of little boys pulling the wings off flies. Just as hard-core torture porn flicks such as Saw have turned complex evisceration into a spectator sport, these mainstream action flicks have upped the ante so much that (for example) the stomping of innocent bystanders becomes a pinball-style laugh line.

Which is ironic, because — for the most part — we care more about these innocent bystanders, than the tight-lipped blank slates who pose as this story’s protagonists. Not one of these so-called stars plays anything approximating a real character; they’re all one-dimensional archetypes ... and quite stupid ones, at that.

Million Dollar Arm: Bunt to shortshop

Million Dollar Arm (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang

Underdog sports stories are irresistible. Fish-out-of-water stories are irresistible.

You’d therefore think that a film combining both elements would be can’t-miss.

You’d think.

Newly arrived in the United States, Dinesh (Madhur Mittal, far left) and Rinku (Suraj
Sharma, center left) are delighted by their first visit to an American baseball field. The
event is recorded for posterity by Amit (Pitobash, far right), while J.B. (Jon Hamm)
looks on with pleasure. Unfortunately, and rather cruelly, he's about to abandon his
new charges, naively believing them capable of carrying on from this point forward.
In fairness, Million Dollar Arm has a lot going for it, starting with a fact-based premise that is buoyed further by several thoroughly charming performances. Unfortunately, these virtues are offset by director Craig Gillespie’s protracted approach — his film is both too slow and, at slightly more than two hours, too long — and a casting decision that doesn’t work as everybody undoubtedly hoped.

Thomas McCarthy’s screenplay takes a gentle, light-comedy approach to real-world sports agent J.B. Bernstein’s gimmick-laden visit to India in 2007, when he staged a reality show-type competition in order to uncover untapped baseball talent. J.B. felt, not unreasonably, that in a nation obsessed with cricket, surely a few “bowlers” could be groomed into Major League pitchers.

As shaped by McCarthy, J.B. (Jon Hamm) and his partner and best friend Aash (Aasif Mandvi) are treading dire financial waters. The dream of fronting their own agency is about to go under for the third and final time, salvation resting entirely on a potential deal with an extravagantly fickle football star (Rey Maualuga).

Things don’t work out, leaving J.B. to clutch at the flimsiest of straws, after some late-night TV flipping between a cricket match and Susan Boyle’s stunning performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” on Britain’s Got Talent (an event that took place in April 2009, but hey, who pays attention to such niggly little details?).

J.B. hatches an improbable scheme, manages to secure financial backing from a taciturn investor named Mr. Chang (Tzi Ma), and soon finds himself in India.

Gillespie is on firm ground during this sequence, evoking portraits of various Indian locales that are by turns exotic and amusing. J.B. liaises with a “fixer” (Darshan Jariwala) and quickly picks up a protégé of sorts: Amit (rising Indian film star Pitobash, in a thoroughly delightful American debut), an eager-beaver volunteer, gopher, translator, right-hand man and die-hard baseball fan.

They’re also joined by Ray Poitevint (Alan Arkin), a cantankerous retired baseball scout who doesn’t need to watch for potential; he can hear the sound of a proper fastball. (Didn’t Clint Eastwood’s Gus Lobel rely on that skill, in 2012’s Trouble with the Curve? And does Arkin ever play anything but cantankerous?)

Friday, May 9, 2014

Belle: Rings a robust note

Belle (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, and mostly harmless, aside from an unexpectedly vulgar sexual assault

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.9.14

Even under dire circumstances, virtuous individuals will stand against the entrenched horror of grim mob rule, risking social censure at best, their very lives at worst.

With her future — and happiness — on the line, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, left) accepts
some sage relationship advice from her foster mother, Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson),
before determining what her gentleman caller has in mind.
Oskar Schindler clandestinely defied Nazis and saved the roughly 1,200 Jews employed in his German factories. Civil rights activist César Chávez essentially shamed the United States into acknowledging and improving the wretched conditions under which primarily Latino laborers harvested foodstuffs. Polish shipyard worker Lech Walesa founded the Solidarity Movement that led to the fall of communism in his own country, and likely hastened the demise of the Soviet Union.

Which brings us to William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield, a late 18th century barrister, politician and judge whose enlightened but highly unpopular decisions did much to encourage England’s eradication of slavery and the financially lucrative slave trade.

Murray may not be the central character in director Amma Asante’s thoroughly engaging Belle, but his presence looms large over the events depicted in this period drama. I must point out, however, that Misan Sagay’s script is far more fancy than fact; she plays fast and loose with historical accuracy, and it’s best to regard this depiction of Dido Elizabeth Belle as wish-fulfillment ... a suggestion of what might (should?) have been, rather than what was.

Sagay candidly admits, in this film’s press notes, that she was “inspired” to write this story after viewing a painting displayed at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland. The 1779 work, a typically aristocratic portrait at one time credited to Johann Zoffany, depicts two beautifully outfitted young women — one black, one white — who, from their stance and expressions, appear to be both affectionate friends and equals.

Which, needless to say, would have been quite unusual at the time.

Asante and Sagay adhere closely to established fact during a brief prologue, with Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) bringing his illegitimate mixed-race daughter, Dido, to be raised at Hampstead’s Kenwood House by his uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson), while he returns to his naval duties. This childless couple already are raising another grand-niece, Elizabeth Murray, roughly the same age as Dido (which makes them third cousins, if I have that straight).

Lord and Lady Mansfield likely initially accept Dido as a companion for Elizabeth, but there’s no question that the former grows up in privileged surroundings, well treated in a household that tolerates both her illegitimacy and dark skin.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Diminishing returns

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for plenty of silly action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.2.14

Spidey’s losing his snap.

I was no fan of Sony’s numb-nuts decision to re-boot this franchise, which the studio announced shortly after the 2007 release of the previous trilogy’s final installment; it seemed the height of lunacy. Our interest is such characters derives, in part, from the way in which they respond — positively or negatively — to an ever-expanding series of events and adventures; look at the brilliantly interwoven strands that have made all the other Marvel characters (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America) so much more interesting on the big screen.

Young gazillionaire Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), stricken with a hereditary disease
that will disfigure and then kill him, begs Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) for a blood
transfusion. But although the man beneath the mask regards Harry as a longtime
friend, Peter genuinely believes that complying with this request could kill Harry
much faster ... or do something even worse.
It’s no fun to see a character taken only so far — adolescent steps into a developing superhero career — and then slammed back into infancy.

The folks behind James Bond waited 44 years before re-telling his origin story, in 2006’s Casino Royale. Even characters as venerable and popular as Dumas’ D’Artagnan and his fellow musketeers are gathered anew, with fresh young casts, only once per generation ... if that.

But only a decade later, as was the case between Tobey Maguire’s debut outing as Spidey in 2002, and Andrew Garfield’s introduction in 2012? Madness.

On top of which, Maguire set the bar VERY high with his second outing; I still rank 2004’s Spider-Man 2 as the best modern superhero epic yet made (yes, even better than The Avengers).

Granted, there’s an obvious problem when it comes to the way Peter Parker is time-locked somewhere between high school and college ... but if Sony had thought that one through, they wouldn’t have started with 27-year-old Maguire in the first place.

Come to think of it, starting anew with 29-year-old Garfield suggests that Sony hasn’t learned its lesson.

But OK; all this aside, individual films should be judged on their own merits, even when part of an ongoing series. And, in fairness, Garfield’s debut outing as the unwitting victim of a radioactive spider bite was quite entertaining. His take on the character is captivating in a slightly different way; he’s more of a klutzy nerd than Maguire’s insecure, angst-ridden nebbish.

Plus, Garfield had the benefit of an excellent supporting cast. Emma Stone’s blond and effervescent Gwen Stacy is a reasonable substitute for Kirsten Dunst’s red-headed Mary Jane Watson (although the latter will be immortalized forever, thanks to her sweet, sexy, rain-drenched, upside-down kiss with Spidey in that series’ first entry).

Sally Field was — and is — terrific as Peter’s Aunt May; Martin Sheen was just right as Uncle Ben, and Denis Leary was properly stern and intelligent as Gwen’s father. And while the Lizard wasn’t my idea of a proper origin-story villain, scripters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves — the latter two being Hollywood veterans with plenty of intelligent screenplays between them — delivered a thoroughly engrossing tale.

Which, for the most part, director Marc Webb managed not to screw up.

The same cannot be said for his handling of this overblown sequel.