Friday, June 27, 2014

Obvious Child: Needs to grow a bit

Obvious Child (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon collaborated on a 16mm short film initially called Planetfall while students at USC’s film school in the early 1970s; it was expanded for theatrical release in 1974, now titled Dark Star, and quickly became a cult classic. Carpenter went on to a lucrative career highlighted by Halloween and Escape from New York; O’Bannon made his bones as a screenwriter, notably with Alien and many other horror and sci-fi projects.

On the sad day that Donna (Jenny Slate) packs up books — her final act as clerk of a
bookstore forced to close — she gets a surprise visit from Max (Jake Lacy), who
manages to bring a smile to her face. Whether she'll agree to his gentle push for an
actual date, however, is another matter.
A few years earlier, in 1967, George Lucas made a 15-minute short titled THX 1138 4EB, also while a student at USC’s film school. It, too, was expanded to feature length with a slightly shorter title — THX 1138 — and was released commercially in 1971, now starring Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasence, and became both a cult classic and Lucas’ first directorial credit. He went on to make American Graffiti and, well, a certain sci-fi epic that took place in a galaxy far, far away.

Obvious Child began life in 2009, as a 23-minute short film written by Anna Bean, Karen Maine and Gillian Robespierre, and directed by Robespierre. Encouraging reviews at various film festivals encouraged Robespierre and star Jenny Slate to re-make the film for feature release, with an expanded cast and running time. A Kickstarter campaign raised the funds to get it placed at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where indie distributor A24 picked it up and now has brought it to a theater near you.

Its occasional merits aside, however, I rather doubt Robespierre will go on to the sort of career enjoyed by Carpenter, O’Bannon and Lucas.

Slate, however, should get a pretty good bump. She’s been all over TV for the past five years, from Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, to House of Lies and Parks and Recreation. She capably handles a big-screen starring role here, establishing a warm and delectably snarky persona.

Moving forward, though, she needs better material.

The major problem is that Obvious Child still feels like a 23-minute film, albeit one that has been padded with a lot of extraneous “stuff” in order to beef it up into an 84-minute feature. Several sequences do little but fill time, to the detriment of the story being told, and at least one sidebar is completely pointless.

And since Robespierre now has taken the primary scripting credit for this longer version, she’s clearly the one to blame. Perhaps she shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss Maine and Bean (although Maine and newcomer Elisabeth Holm do share a “story by” credit here).

Friday, June 20, 2014

Jersey Boys: Ain't that a shame

Jersey Boys (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.20.14

The good news:

Considering this play’s origins as a minimalist jukebox musical, director Clint Eastwood and scripters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice have “opened it up” impressively for the big screen.

At the last possible second, the members of The Four Seasons — from left, Tommy
(Vincent Piazza), Bob (Erich Bergen), Frankie (John Lloyd Young) and Nick (Michael
Lomenda) — attempt to inspire their record producer by singing a new song, over the
phone, prior to a studio session that could make or break their careers.
It can’t hurt, of course, that Brickman and Elice were intimately acquainted with the material, having written the musical book for the 2005 Broadway hit that went home with four Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The story charts the unlikely rise, success and lamentable self-destruction of the 1960s pop/rock group, The Four Seasons, perhaps better known these days as the combo fronted by Frankie Valli. Eastwood’s approach may be viewed with surprise by fans of the stage production; this cinematic adaptation of Jersey Boys is less a musical per se, and more a drama about musicians.

With the exception of a few numbers performed mostly intact for climactic emphasis, we’re granted little more than a flavor of the combo’s many hits: just enough to remind older viewers how many chart-toppers the group produced, while perhaps impressing younger viewers who don’t realize how far back some of these tunes actually go.

Additionally, Brickman and Elice have re-structured the narrative, essentially abandoning the more obvious elements of the “seasonal” presentation — spring, summer, fall and finally winter, each segment narrated by a different member of the combo — that mirrored the group’s genesis and eventual break-up. Little of that gimmick remains, aside from a stray reference to Vivaldi.

By the same token, although these individuals still break the fourth wall to tell this story by addressing us directly, their narrative input is intermixed here, rather than divided by person, according to season.

And, quite intriguingly, Valli — who wrapped up the story during the stage play’s winter segment — gets no narration here. We therefore never get a sense of his inner thoughts or motivations, as is the case with his three comrades; to a degree, then, our impression of Valli is shaped mostly by how others see him.

That’s an intriguing artistic choice, and it places a heavier burden on John Lloyd Young, who carries the bulk of the story’s emotional weight as Valli: a kid who comes into this world as Frankie Castelluccio, and seems destined to become just another mob-affiliated New Jersey punk.

Friday, June 13, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2: Not as much spark

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, and needlessly, for fantasy action and mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.13.14

Catching dragon-discharged lightning in a bottle is hard enough just once; expecting to replicate such a feat is darn near impossible.

Although Hiccup's father wants him to assume the role of village chief, the young Viking
would much rather explore distant lands astride his beloved dragon, Toothless.
Unfortunately, one of those journeys reveals a very, very nasty villain who'd love to
destroy Hiccup and everybody else in his village.
2010’s How to Train Your Dragon was, to my taste, a perfect film: a clever and luxurious expansion of the first of Cressida Cowell’s series of children’s novels, with an engaging blend of well structured characters, rich vocal talent and — most crucially — a plot that focused quietly on a boy and his rather unusual “dog,” then built to a suspenseful, exciting and unexpectedly poignant conclusion.

One could not help being touched, as well, by the authentic behavior granted Toothless, our young hero’s rare Night Fury dragon: the ever-watchful gaze, the playful curiosity, the protective instincts and the pet-like eagerness to please. The animators did a rare and wondrous thing, by concocting an animated creature — and a mythical one, at that — far more lifelike than any others brought to the big screen, dating all the way back to the gentle woodland critters of 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

All of which gave director/scripter Dean DeBlois very large reptilian shoes to fill, with this long-awaited sequel.

We can be saddened, then — although likely not surprised — that Dragon 2 doesn’t live up to its predecessor. DeBlois screwed up the formula, and he has nobody to blame but himself.

1992’s Home Alone 2 remains the textbook case of ill-advised sophomore slump. In an astonishing example of short-sightedness, everybody assumed that the key to success lay in enhancing the slapstick nonsense involving the “wet bandits” who bedeviled little Kevin McCallister, thereby overlooking all the poignant, gently tender kid-on-his-own moments that made the original’s high-comedy final act so funny in contrast. The sequel, essentially nothing but burlesque, fell completely flat.

Successful tone and pacing derive from highs and lows: a balance between the many, many elements that combine to produce an engaging narrative. As my grandmother often warned, not even ice cream sundaes could withstand becoming a steady diet; all too quickly, they’d become bland. And even, well, boring.

That’s more or less what has happened, with Dragon 2. As for why, I’m always suspicious when a filmmaker’s colleagues get jettisoned en route to a sequel. On the first Dragon, DeBlois shared directing and scripting credit with Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch, The Croods), with additional writing assists from William Davies and Adam F. Goldberg. Collaboratively, they fashioned a heartwarming tale that was long on interactions between our misfit Viking hero, Hiccup, and his gruff father, Stoick; along with Hiccup’s unlikely attraction to young Viking goddess Astrid; and of course the highs and lows that accompanied Hiccup’s efforts to win the trust of the wild, wounded Toothless.

Then, and only then, did that first film pull out all the stops for its exciting third act.

Words and Pictures: Graceless and clumsy

Words and Pictures (2013) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for sexual candor, profanity and nude sketches

By Derrick Bang

I cannot imagine what people were thinking.

This film is being marketed as a frothy romantic comedy involving a New England prep school English teacher and an art instructor, who encourage their respective students to engage in a friendly rivalry to determine whether words or pictures are the superior form of communication. Meanwhile, of course, the two instructors fall in love.

At first blush — and demonstrating excellent taste — Dina (Juliette Binoche) wants
nothing to do with the arrogant and conceited Jack (Clive Owen). But she cannot help being
intrigued by his proposal that their respective students embrace a challenge to determine the
comparative value of language, spoken or written, and images, drawn, painted or
photographed. So, game on!
Don’t believe it. That’s a serious distortion of the truth.

Gerald Di Pego’s original screenplay actually concerns an arrogant, alcoholic English instructor who lays waste to everything and everybody in his orbit, committing an escalating series of reprehensible acts while sliding further and further into uncontrolled drinking. The story is a downer from its opening scenes, with a few more dreary details thrown in as sidebar elements, just in case the central plot isn’t depressing enough.

Evidence suggests, after completion, that saner heads recognized this film as a stinker, since it sought U.S. release for almost a year. The eventual takers — Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions — must have been reluctant suitors, because the online press materials are minimal (only four photos from which to choose, instead of the usual two or three dozen), and most visibly because the film has been dumped quietly during an early summer season dominated by much glitzier popcorn flicks.

Fair enough. I just can’t figure out what prompted stars such as Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche to accept the assignment in the first place. Under no circumstances could Di Pego’s script have seemed reasonable, let alone rational. And although veteran director Fred Schepisi (Roxanne, Last Orders and Empire Falls, among others) gamely coaxes strong performances from his two leads, that can’t change the fact that they’re trying to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

Owen plays Jack Marcus, a charismatic honors English instructor at Maine’s bucolic Croyden Prep, who has long coasted on the adulation of students who enjoy his playful nature. But these “likable big brother” characteristics, which teens find so enchanting, are viewed as irritating and condescending by almost all of Jack’s colleagues. The lone exception is Croyden’s history instructor, Walt (Bruce Davison), a longtime friend who occasionally indulges Jack’s fondness for intricate word games.

Jack’s most visible problem is an ongoing slide into alcoholism, with lunchtime nips of vodka having blossomed into drunken public displays that have gotten him blackballed at a tony local restaurant. In part, Jack’s drinking results from professional panic; although hired as a noted author and poet, back in the day, he hasn’t been able to write anything for years.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow: Sharp sci-fi thrills

Edge of Tomorrow (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for intense sci-fi action and violence, profanity and fleeting nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.6.14

Think Groundhog Day on steroids.

This is slick and suspenseful action sci-fi, fueled by an intriguing premise and pulse-pounding momentum courtesy of director Doug Liman and editor James Herbert. Veteran scripter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Jack Reacher) and colleagues Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth clearly have shaped their narrative to fit star Tom Cruise’s outsized presence, but not in the way that one might expect (at least, not until the final act).

As Cage (Tom Cruise, center) listens, his confusion mounting, Carter (Noah Taylor) and
Vrataski (Emily Blunt) explain that the thousands upon thousands of ferocious "Mimic"
warriors should be regarded as mere appendages of a single controlling hive-mind. Well
and good, but where does that leave our outnumbered and overwhelmed Earth forces?
Like many action stars before him, Cruise has been “handling” his advancing age — 52 and counting — by ignoring it completely. In fairness, he has done a pretty good job of that, relying on muscular feats such as scrambling up the side of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, with the élan of a stuntman half his age.

Cruise also has a couple of signature stunts that apparently get written into all of his scripts: You can always count on at least one scene where an explosion savagely hurls him from one end of the screen to the other; and another scene that involves surviving a lengthy fall and a bone-crunching thump as he lands on his back, his pain-contorted features conveniently facing the camera.

You’ll find both stunts in this film, as well.

But I come not to bury Cruise, but to praise him; the march of time notwithstanding, he makes such brawny hokum work. More to the point, Edge of Tomorrow plays against Cruise’s usual role as the smartest and most capable person in the room, in this case making the signature ear-splitting grin and Mr. Slick aura work against the character in question. That’s both unexpected and clever, not to mention rather savvy on Cruise’s part; it makes both him and the film that much more interesting.

Edge of Tomorrow started life as All You Need Is Kill, a 2004 sci-fi novel by Japanese author Hiroshi Sakurazaka and illustrator Yoshitoshi ABe. The futuristic setting finds Earth under siege by an invading alien armada of ferocious biomechanical “Mimics” that seem able to overcome anything we can throw at them (and, rather unfortunately for this big-screen adaptation, bear a striking resemblance to the nastier Decepticons in the Transformers movie franchise).

Sakurazaka’s protagonist is a ground-level grunt in the United Defense Force. Taking an entirely different approach, Cruise stars as Maj. William Cage, a smooth-talking military glad-hander who has called upon his previous experience as an advertising exec, to orchestrate the gung-ho PR campaign that has made so many young men and women eager to don battle armor and die for the global cause.

Cage has been careful, however, to ensure that dying is something for other people; he wants nothing to do with the front-line assault that has been mounted against the otherworldly invaders that have captured all of Western Europe. Unfortunately, Cage unwisely irritates a four-star general — Brendan Gleeson, perfectly cast as the dour Brigham — who has no patience for smug “bystanders.”

The Fault in Our Stars: Close to faultless

The Fault in Our Stars (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and perhaps too harshly, for thematic elements, chaste sexuality and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang

Every generation embraces at least one swooningly poignant saga of star-crossed lovers, which, as a result of massive ticket sales, becomes a media sensation that generates all sorts of commentary, analysis and — the inevitable backlash — scornful snickering.

During one of her rare bouts of utter despair, Hazel (Shailene Woodley) admits that she
has come to regard her childhood back yard playset as quite pathetic, a sentiment with
which Gus (Ansel Elgort) heartily agrees.
The adulation isn’t hard to understand; we’re hard-wired for this sort of stuff. Have been since 16th century audiences crowded the stalls to see performances of Romeo and Juliet. And probably long before that.

As for the snickering, well, sometimes it’s warranted. (See the 1970 adaptation of Erich Segal’s Love Story. Or the book itself, for that matter.)

A very fine line separates artistic success from the sort of puerile, overly histrionic treacle found in TV soap operas. We therefore ask that our melancholy melodramas be intelligent, populated by perceptive characters whose actions resonate with our real-world experiences and expectations, and which — in the case of films — are made by talented actors who respect the material, scripters with an understanding of subtlety, and directors who refrain from artificially enhancing the emotional intensity. With stuff like too many tight close-ups.

I’m therefore happy to report that director Josh Boone’s adaptation of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars conducts itself quite honorably. The book’s many, many fans will be delighted to hear key chunks of dialogue and exposition lifted directly from the page, and in a few cases scripters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have improved the story’s overall flow: some judicious nips and tucks here, a couple of droll laugh lines inserted there. (Films are much better than books, when it comes to verbal zingers.)

Mostly, though, this film gets its momentum and emotional heft from star Shailene Woodley’s expressive and heartbreaking performance as 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster, a girl who handles her cancer death-sentence with the sort disarming candor, mocking wit and stubborn strength that we’d hope to call upon, under similar circumstances.

In a word, Woodley is a revelation.

A performance starts with the overall appearance, and Woodley looks right, with the sallow, waxy pallor — the aura of illness — that results from a terminal disease. More significantly, though, she projects brittleness and fragility, as if she might shatter from abrupt contact, or simply collapse as her skeletal frame betrays her.

Green’s book persuasively depicts Hazel’s constant battle for breath, her body badly compromised by the papillary thyroid cancer that spawned — in her own words, as lifted from Green’s text — an impressive and long-settled satellite colony in her lungs. Woodley conveys this gasping struggle for oxygen just as convincingly, her gritty, determined gaze never quite concealing the despair that bubbles behind her eyes.