Friday, March 27, 2015

Get Hard: Rather limp

Get Hard (2015) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated R, for pervasive crude and sexual content, relentless profanity, graphic nudity and drug references

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.27.15

If relentless vulgarity and blithe racism, sexism and homophobia can be considered an art form, then I guess Will Ferrell is a Rembrandt.

"Trapped" within the confines of the faux jail cell made from his own study, James (Will
Ferrell, center) nervously awaits the moment when his house staff and grounds keeper
will "pretend" to beat on him, prison-style, while Darnell (Kevin Hart, right) supervises.
There may be a racial, gender or religious faction left unsmeared by Ferrell’s newest foray into moron comedy, but it’d be hard to determine who got left behind.

And, no doubt, that would have been an oversight. I’m sure scripters Adam McKay, Jay Martel, Ian Roberts and Etan Cohen — the latter also occupying the director’s chair — intended to be equal-opportunity offensive.

Get Hard is typical Ferrell, with the Saturday Night Live veteran swanning through yet another contrived plot constructed around its boorish sight gags. By no means can what Ferrell does be termed acting, since his entire persona is built around a naïve twit alter-ego who cheerfully, unwittingly, insults and outrages everybody within his orbit.

This gimmick has served him well for 20 years, so I guess he sees no reason to change. And it could be argued that viewer indignation and disgust are tempered by the fact that Ferrell works hardest to make fun of himself. He clearly knows that his various screen characters are ignorant, clueless boobs, and he revels in their boobishness.

Which, in a weird way, makes his behavior more palatable.

A bit more palatable, anyway.

Because — as always is the case — a little of Will Ferrell goes a long, long way, and 100  minutes of him in Get Hard might have been difficult to endure ... were in not for the truly hilarious presence of co-star Kevin Hart.

Frankly, Hart should get top billing. He runs away with this film, stealing every scene he’s in, and he’s a helluva lot funnier than Ferrell. Hart has the rhythmic physical grace, streetwise savvy and impeccable comic timing of a young Eddie Murphy at his prime: a vibrant screen presence that couldn’t be a more welcome alternative to Ferrell’s insipid white-bread doofus.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Two Days, One Night: Every worker's nightmare

Two Days, One Night (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.20.15

This one’s brutal.

Writer/directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have uncorked an absorbing splash of cinema verité that is no less gripping for its low-budget origins: a working-class calamity that feels like it could happen to a friend, a neighbor ... or even you.

Having just learned that she has been voted out of a job by most of her own co-workers,
Sandra (Marion Cotillard, center) persuades the company owner (Baptiste Sornin) to hold
a second ballot. She now has two days, with the help of best friend Juliette (Catherine
Salée), to persuade a majority of their colleagues to change their minds.
The disturbing script is a sly update of classic psychological short stories such as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button.” Both explore the superficiality of morality and personal integrity: the point at which seemingly good people will cave, their ethics forgotten in the face of temptation, reward ... or fear.

The Belgian Dardenne brothers’ Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Two Days, One Night) revolves around a similarly ghastly quandary, in this case as it affects the victim.

We meet Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a working-class Belgian mother, just as she has completed a medical leave of absence. The cause remains unspecified, but clues point to a nervous breakdown of some sort; she’s clearly fragile, emotionally shattered. She’s resting at home, regaining her strength after (perhaps) her first day back at work on the production floor at Solwal, a small company that manufactures solar panels.

The phone rings, with grim news from her co-worker and best friend, Juliette (Catherine Salée). The company owner, Mr. Dumont (Baptiste Sornin), has decided that things have been almost as efficient during Sandra’s absence. Wanting to be “fair,” he has put the matter to a vote among Sandra’s blue-collar colleagues: If they agree to work harder in her continued — permanent — absence, each will receive a bonus of 1,000 Euros.

In other words, if they vote for the bonus, Sandra will be fired.

The vote goes 14 to 2, against. This is the news that Juliette — one of Sandra’s lone supporters — has just called to share, this late Friday afternoon.

Sandra is frantic; she and her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), need their combined incomes to meet mortgage payments on the home they’ve recently purchased, in a triumphant step up from public housing. It’s impossible to chart the profusion of emotions that cross Sandra’s face, as she tries to absorb what has happened, and the implications behind this catastrophe.

Cotillard earned a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for this role, and it’s easy to see why; she slips persuasively into Sandra’s skin. Because of both her performance and the script’s real-world honesty, we quickly forget that we’re watching a drama; it feels much more like a documentary. An awful one, at that.

Insurgent: Incomprehensible

Insurgent (2015) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for intense action and violence, mild sensuality and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang

They’re all blending together.

Dystopian, post-apocalyptic societies cobbled together after some undefined catastrophe, and ruled by corrupt aristocratic elites; resourceful teenage rebels, blessed with special talents, determined to destroy the system, and forced to undergo cruel, violent and flat-out weird mental and/or physical trials; lots of running, jumping, shooting, and killing; the frequently shed tears.

Having been captured by Candor supervisor Jack Kang (Daniel Dae Kim, left), Tris
(Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James, center) propose a "trial by truth" to verify that
they're not civilization-destroying traitors, as has been claimed by the (genuinely) evil
Erudite leader.
I no longer know whether I’m watching the next installment of The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, or The Maze Runner.

And, frankly, I’m losing interest. Been there, endured that.

Sadly, the just-released Insurgent bears the brunt of my apathy, thanks primarily to the clumsy, tin-eared script credited to Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback. They’re a poor substitute for Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, who did a far superior adaptation of last year’s Divergent, the first film in Veronica Roth’s trilogy.

This new film resembles Roth’s second novel in little more than name; great, gaping chunks of exposition and numerous supporting characters have been lost or ignored, and significant plot points have been changed beyond recognition. Not that the narrative has much of a plot to begin with; this film is little more than running and fighting, whether in environments real or imagined.

Indeed, the latter crop up so frequently that it becomes difficult to distinguish whether Tris (Shailene Woodley) is in genuine danger, or being victimized by one of the evil “SIM” (simulation) environments, or whether we’re once again being suckered by another of her own nightmares.

The latter are particularly irritating cheats, and director Robert Schwentke opens with just such a sucker play: a rather blatant indication of the highly disappointing film to follow.

All of which is a shame, because Woodley gave us a particularly plucky, intelligent and engaging Tris in the first film: a heroine worthy of our respect and admiration, as she rallied when confronted by the truth of the world in which she lived. She’s much less admirable in this second outing, reduced to an insecure, reckless and weepy shadow of her former self.

I understand that this is driven, to a great degree, by the subtext in Roth’s second novel: Tris has become plagued by self-doubt, worried that she’s a “curse” to anybody foolish enough to befriend or love her. The crux of her evolution, in this saga’s second chapter, is the necessity of overcoming such anxiety: rejecting this doom-laden view of herself.

Unfortunately, Schwentke overplays the “despair” card; Woodley’s Tris cries too often, and our impatience soon overwhelms all else ... much the way we groaned over how Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss became so uncharacteristically impotent, in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. That just felt contrived and wrong, and the same is true here.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Cinderella: Dreams do come true

Cinderella (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for mild dramatic tension

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.13.15

Doubts notwithstanding — and I had plenty — Disney has done a respectable job, with this live-action update of its own 1950 animated classic.

Ella (Lily James, left), surprised to learn that invitations to the upcoming palace ball will be
extended to every maiden in the realm, wonders how she might escape her stepmother's
clutches, in order to attend. For their part, stepsisters Drisella (Sophie McShera, center)
and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) immediately vow to win the prince's hand in marriage.
Kenneth Branagh’s presence in the director’s chair certainly helps; it stands to reason that the Irish Renaissance man who brought Shakespearean regality to 2011’s Thor could grant (let’s be candid) a fairy-tale trifle with the same degree of dramatic heft.

In lesser hands, Thor could have sunk beneath the weight of its laughably pompous dialogue and overwrought premise ... but no, Branagh gave it class. He does the same here, with this fresh interpretation of Cinderella.

To be sure, he had able assistance, starting with a solid script from writer/director Chris Weitz, still best known for his 2002 adaptation of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Weitz’s take on Cinderella is a little bit Grimm (as in Brothers) and a little bit Disney, with a soupçon of modern feminist sparkle. The resulting narrative is appropriately cheerful, poignant, bleak and swooningly romantic, as needs must.

With respect to the latter, wait until you catch Cinderella’s arrival at the Prince’s ball: Rarely has a character been afforded so splendid an entrance, and rarely has a director milked a scene with such unapologetic oomph.

Which brings us to this film’s young star: Lily James, who makes a flawless Cinderella. She’s eminently believable as an unassuming country lass, albeit one who’s well-read and possesses the perceptive wit of a Jane Austen heroine. At the same time, James “cleans up” marvelously, when a bit of Fairy Godmothering transforms ash-begrimed Cinder-Ella into a breathtaking vision who transfixes all in her presence.

James has a natural ingenuousness that Branagh employs to full effect: the sort of sweet sincerity that Christopher Reeve brought to Superman, when he spoke of fighting for “truth, justice and the American way.” Nobody laughed when Reeve delivered that iconic line; well, nobody laughs here either, when James’ Ella — recalling a promise made years back, to her mother — resolutely insists on facing the world with “courage ... and kindness.”

Pronounced just like that, with a slight pause between the two attributes. Again, the sort of statement that, if delivered even the slightest bit wrong, would prompt snickers from our oh-so-sophisticated 21st century audiences.

Trust me: No laughter erupted during Monday evening’s preview screening (at least, not at that particular moment). Indeed, the audience lapped it up. It would appear that Disney’s current run of “princess power” has yet to subside.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: Second-rate

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG, for mild profanity and sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.6.15

In this particular case, “second best” is ... merely OK.

It’s like visiting a friend you haven’t seen for a few years, only to discover that the friend has changed. And not for the better.

Able — if only for a moment — to forget the various issues plaguing his personal and
professional life, Sonny (Dev Patel, center) reflects on the warm bond he has established
with Muriel (Maggie Smith, at his immediate right).
The set-up is familiar, and therefore offers less of the first film’s delightful sense of discovery; the subplots are more contrived, giving a sense, at times, that all concerned are trying too hard; and Maggie Smith doesn’t get nearly as many of her deliciously piquant one-liners (echoing those she also flings so readily on TV’s Downton Abbey).

At 122 minutes, this sequel also is a bit long, and drags in spots.

Fortunately, familiarity isn’t an entirely bad thing. The entire cast has returned for this second outing, as have writer/director John Madden and co-scripter Ol Parker. They’re all seasoned pros, and while the ground on which they tread may be worn, they nonetheless step with alacrity.

There’s no question that the first Hotel’s success owes much to aging baby-boomers who tire of comic-book movies; we also can point to similarly delightful “aging relic” characters in recent films such as Quartet, Philomena, Pride and even the aforementioned Downton Abbey. Frankly, it’s refreshing to spend time with people who weren’t in diapers a mere decade ago.

That said, Madden and Parker shrewdly hedge their bets by including the much younger Dev Patel, even more familiar now, in the wake of his three-season run on HBO’s The Newsroom His Sonny Kapoor continues to be the hilariously over-enthusiastic glue that binds the residents of his Jaipur-based Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Patel also knows his way around a well-timed line delivery, and Sonny remains much like the dinner guest who invariably embarrasses himself, no matter what the conversational circumstances, by going one ill-advised sentence over the edge.

But poor Sonny endures more than his share of flustered setbacks in the second outing, and Patel struggles gamely to navigate these abnormal waters. That he mostly succeeds has more to do with his skill as an actor, than with the material with which he’s forced to work.

And “forced” seems the operative term. Much of the first film’s dynamic revolved around fish-out-of-water tension: the need for ex-pat Brits to navigate this exotic and wholly alien territory. Well, the territory has become comfortable, which means that Madden and Parker have to pull new narrative tricks out of their hats ... and the strain is noticeable.

Chappie: Too many nuts, not enough bolts

Chappie (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for violence, gore and constant profanity

By Derrick Bang

The best part about Chappie is the title character: not the robot per se, but the marvelous motion-control “performance” given by Sharlto Copley, which was built into a CGI character by the film’s video effects wizards.

Once Chappie falls in with rather evil companions, his "maker" Deon (Dev Patel) tries to
share some important moral imperatives ... such as Thou Shalt Not Kill. But while this
suddenly sentient robot understands the notion of conscience, his "monkey see, monkey do"
tendencies often yield less than ideal results.
We never see Copley on screen, of course, and there’s certainly no way that he could be concealed within this robot’s streamlined mechanical form ... but the actor grants this character a personality, awareness and sense of presence that evoke the similarly brilliant manner in which Andy Serkis brought Gollum to life, in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films.

I only wish that director Neill Blomkamp’s film were the equal of its star.

The South African-born Blomkamp burst on the cinematic scene with 2009’s stunning District 9, a thoughtful sci-fi parable that explored racism, class divides and political skullduggery, while simultaneously building to a rip-roaring climax: a neat trick in all respects.

But Blomkamp has recycled many of the same story elements in subsequent projects, to diminishing returns. Its much bigger budget notwithstanding, 2013’s Elysium played the same narrative card: the violent efforts of an oppressed underclass to rebel against a harsh and long-established social order, with the catalyst being a lone individual who undergoes a spiritual and even physical transformation.

And here we are at Chappie, Blomkamp’s third sci-fi epic, and — as in District 9 — our central character once again is an innocent forced to adapt to horrific circumstances, while unwittingly becoming the face of social upheaval.

This time, though, Blomkamp and co-scripter Terri Tatchell have compounded the sense of déjà vu by borrowing heavily from previous cinema sci-fi. The result too frequently feels like a clumsy blend of Robocop (the 1987 original) and Australian director George Miller’s savage, post-apocalyptic Mad Max series, stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster.

Along with elements that have become Blomkamp clichés after only three films, most particularly the testosterone-enraged, alpha-male villain who comes after our hero with bigger, badder hardware: David James’ Koobus, in District 9; Copley’s Kruger, in Elysium; and now Hugh Jackman’s Vincent Moore, in Chappie. They’re all the same character: unhinged psychopathic thugs. Been there, grimaced at that.