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.