Friday, June 26, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: A celebration of life and love

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, occasional coarse language and fleeting drug content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.26.15

Little movies, absent shrieking publicity campaigns, have the potential to become unexpected treasures ... and this is one of the best I’ve seen in awhile.

After dryly dispensing another nugget of bewildering, utterly useless "advice," Greg's
father (Nick Offerman, center) offers his newest culinary nightmare — pig's feet — to
Greg (Thomas Mann, right) and Earl (RJ Cyler)
Every generation gets its share of heartfelt dramas purporting to reflect the high school experience; some become classics, embraced by their target audiences due to a savvy blend of snarky wit and often uncomfortable intimacy. The modern cycle probably began with Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Breakfast Club, while more recent examples include Juno, Rocket Science and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s touching rendition of Jesse Andrews’ impressive writing debut — the Salinger-esque young adult novel, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl — belongs in their company. With the leaders of the pack.

Andrews has adapted his own book here, and it’s hard to know where to begin, with respect to the film’s many highlights. The casting is excellent, from the spot-on main characters to the off-center adults orbiting around them: the latter a droll touch, since teens always believe that adults inhabit an entirely different universe.

The dialogue is sharp and well delivered, the mordant, angst-ridden tone a painful reminder of high school disenfranchisement. This is also one of very few films to make excellent use of its main character’s off-camera commentary: reflections and asides — complete with narrative subtitles — that genuinely advance the storyline, as opposed to merely re-stating the obvious.

My favorite bit, though, has to be Andrews’ scathing, drop-dead-perfect description of high school’s clique-ish nature, as explained by the morose Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), a quiet, withdrawn kid who has made an art of navigating the social minefield by remaining as anonymous as possible. I couldn’t begin to do justice to Greg’s dissection of his school’s various factions, and paragraphs would be wasted in a failed attempt.

Besides which, that would spoil your delight upon hearing this discerning, mocking analysis from Greg’s own lips.

Max: A fairly good dog

Max (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, and quite generously, despite brutal behavior and considerable peril

By Derrick Bang


To quote the Joni Mitchell song, Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got, ’til it’s gone.

Case in point: Whatever happened to real-world, family-friendly adventure films?

A boy and his dog: The bond takes awhile to establish, but once Justin (Josh Wiggins) and
Max learn to trust each other, they're inseparable. Which is a good thing, because events
in Justin's neighborhood are about to get rather nasty...
By which I mean, films that a) aren’t animated; and b) don’t involve witchcraft, fantasy or science-fiction. In other words, stories that could — theoretically — happen to the rambunctious kids who live a few doors away.

Once upon a time, such efforts were a Hollywood genre staple. Early Disney live-action dramas perfected the formula: Consider the French slum children who foil a bank robbery, in 1963’s The Horse Without a Head; or the kidnappers who meet their match in a love-struck teenager (Hayley Mills), an FBI agent who’s allergic to cats (Dean Jones) and a wandering Siamese tomcat, in 1965’s That Darn Cat. (Don’t waste your time with the dreadful 1997 remake.)

Earlier still, avid fans thrilled to the adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Lassie and their various youthful companions. Nor should we overlook plucky little Benji, who saved two kidnapped children in his 1974 movie debut. (Sadly, Benji’s various sequels weren’t nearly as satisfying.)

Of late, though, such films haven’t merely become endangered; they’re all but extinct. I can’t think of one more recent than director Danny Boyle’s larkish Millions, and its saga of a 7-year-old British lad who stumbles onto a heist taking place just as the Euro is about to become the coin of the realm. And that was back in 2004.

All of which makes Max a welcome relief from the spell-wielding teens, post-apocalyptic heroines and animated toys/animals/robots/fairies that invariably get summoned when parents look at their moppets and say, “Okay, what shall we watch tonight?”

Director Boaz Yakin deserves credit for trying to revive a moribund genre, and he chose wisely with respect to the military service dog at the heart of this (mostly) engaging tale. At its best, Max is heartwarming, suspenseful and just amusing enough.

But Yakin and co-scripter Sheldon Lettich never quite get the tone right. Their script is clumsy and occasionally sloppy about details; their two-legged protagonist spends too much time being an unforgivably obnoxious little toad; and the general level of peril is way over the top for their film’s generous PG rating. Nasty, gun-toting weapons smugglers and the Mexican Mafia? Seriously? Whatever happened to bungling bank robbers?

Ted 2: Insufficiently stuffed

Ted 2 (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for drug use, crude and sexual content, and pervasive profanity

By Derrick Bang

Let’s cut to the chase.

Films like this are critic-proof. If you enjoyed Ted — if the notion of a foul-mouthed, substance-abusing stuffed bear hit your sweet spot — then you’ll certainly enjoy this sequel just as much. Perhaps even more so.

En route to New York, in hopes of getting some desperately needed legal assistance,
John (Mark Wahlberg), Ted and Samantha (Amanda Seyfried) playfully bicker about who
gets to drive next. Naturally, Ted wants his turn behind the wheel...
But if equal-opportunity race-, gender- and religion-baiting profanity and vulgarity are apt to send you into a froth, prompting letters to your Congressperson regarding the dangerous decline of Western civilization ... better steer clear.

Hey, I thought 2012’s Ted was a giggle. At times. The same is true of this one. That said, both films suffer from the malady that often afflicted Monty Python’s big-screen efforts: the tendency to exploit a joke that’s amusing the first time, by beating it to death. Most potty humor does not become funnier through repeated exposure.

At 106 minutes, Ted was at least half an hour too long. At 115 minutes, this sequel is at least 45 minutes too long.

It’s simply impossible to shake the feeling — in both cases — that an admittedly hilarious Saturday Night Live sketch has been stretched way beyond its ability to amuse.

Still, creator/director/co-scripter Seth MacFarlane deserves credit for fitful attempts to stretch the envelope. This new film’s Busby Berkeley-style opening credits are quite a surprise, well deserving the special credit given First Assistant Director David Sardi. (I suspect, however, that those who show up for Ted’s profanity-laced tirades will be bored by these credits, despite their choreographed opulence.)

A few surprise guest stars are cleverly used, notably Jay Leno and Liam Neeson, both of whom obviously have a healthy sense of humor. Michael Dorn does some very cute stuff with his longtime Star Trek persona. Sam Jones also returns, playing himself and still capitalizing on his long-ago stint as Flash Gordon. Always a funny bit.

And — wait, could it really be true? — the script actually flirts with honest-to-God social relevance. MacFarlane and co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild paint with awfully broad strokes, but they definitely score a few provocative jabs at discrimination issues. That’s unexpected, given the delivery system’s overall tone.

On top of which, I never tire of visual effects supervisor Blair Clark’s impressive work. It’s one thing to fabricate imaginary creatures on distant planets or alternate-universe fantasy realms: quite something else to so seamlessly integrate an 18-inch stuffed bear into our own workaday world. Hey, I’ll buy into the premise: Ted is real.

He simply isn’t somebody with whom I wish to spend so much time.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Inside Out: An animated masterpiece

Inside Out (2015) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated G, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.19.15

Sheer genius.

After stalling a bit in recent years, Pixar has reclaimed its throne of brilliance, thanks to the impressively imaginative Inside Out, one of the most entertaining and ingenious metaphors ever brought to the big screen.

Joy, right, is horrified to discover that a mere touch from Sadness can transform a yellow
sphere — representing a happy memory — into one of sorrow. What will this do to the
long-term memories carefully stored within their host little girl's mind?
Mind you, it’s not that Cars 2, Monsters University and Brave were bad films; far from it. But they were disappointing nonetheless: the first two driven more by merchandising and less by a heartfelt reason to continue their storylines, as was realized far better by the Toy Story trilogy. More to the point, all three recent films lacked the inspirational, outside-the-box snap, crackle and pop that has characterized so many of Pixar’s efforts.

It’s their own fault, really: Set the bar high, and fans arrive with expectations.

All of which are met, and then some, by the wonderful Inside Out. By turns exhilarating, wildly euphoric and poignant, this modern-day fairy tale offers perceptive insight into how (and why) we deal with love, happiness, family ties, crushing disappointments and all sorts of routine daily successes and failures, along with a rather droll suggestion of what might be happening when our lives feel “out of balance.”

Director Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc. and Up) concocted a strikingly savvy premise, then shaped it into a thoroughly engaging script with co-writers Josh Cooley and Meg LeFauve. In a way, it’s the Monsters, Inc. concept writ much larger: Instead of merely establishing a reason for nightmares, Docter & Co. have built an entire fantastical explanation for all human behavior.

In short, we’re governed by an uneasy alliance between five key emotions — Joy, Fear, Anger, Sadness and Disgust — which take turns operating  a complex control center within our minds. Too much of any one emotion results in instability, manifested in the outer “real” world by bewildering (to others) behavior.

But it’s much, much deeper than that, as gradually revealed in the charming saga of  Riley, whom we first meet as a gurgling infant born to her delighted mother (voiced by Diane Lane) and father (Kyle MacLachlan). As she’s delivered into the world, Riley’s mind receives its first emotion: Joy (Amy Poehler), awestruck by what she sees “through” her infant host’s eyes.

Joy is further surprised by the creation and immediate storage of the baby’s first memory, wrapped in a protective, bowling ball-sized soft yellow sphere: the color of Joy herself.

But infant frustration quickly follows, cueing the arrival of Anger (Lewis Black); he’s soon joined by Fear (Bill Hader), Sadness (Phyllis Smith) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Over time, as Riley (now voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) grows into a rambunctious adolescent — encouraged to do so by her doting parents — her myriad memory spheres are predominantly yellow ... because what is childhood, if not a period of great joy?

But matters are destined to get more complicated.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Jurassic World: Dino-might

Jurassic World (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for intense sci-fi violence and peril

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.12.15

We never learn.

Which is a good thing ... because, otherwise, where would Hollywood find most of its plotlines?

Having managed one narrow escape after another, our besieged heroes — from left,
Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), Owen (Chris Pratt), Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray
(Ty Simpkins) — wind up trapped in a lab when yet another dino-menace appears out
of nowhere. These poor folks just can't catch a break...
In a few key respects, Jurassic World is an honorable sequel to the sensational 1993 film that Steven Spielberg made from Michael Crichton’s riveting, way-clever novel ... not to mention Spielberg’s almost-as-good 1997 follow-up, adapted from Crichton’s own sequel. (Equal credit also goes to scripter David Koepp, who worked on both films.)

We’ll just sorta pretend that the series’ third entry, in 2001, never happened.

Which also seems to be the attitude adopted by this new film’s director, Colin Trevorrow, and his three co-writers: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Derek Connelly. Jurassic World does acknowledge the first two films with several nice nods toward those who sculpted this franchise so superbly. Even Michael Giacchino’s exhilarating score references key John Williams themes from the two Spielberg movies.

Visual effects supervisors Tim Alexander and Glen McIntosh also do phenomenal work, further enhancing the “you are there” verisimilitude that made the first film such a jaw-dropping wonder. It’s no imaginative stretch at all, to accept these various beasties as living, breathing ... and highly dangerous.

Trevorrow and editor Kevin Stitt concoct a hell-for-leather third act, with each suspenseful encounter and/or chase building to an even better one. Additionally, the script is laden with perceptive social commentary, taking some well-deserved jabs at our jaded 21st sensibilities, while reminding us anew that — to paraphrase a droll 1970s TV commercial — it’s not nice to mess with Mother Nature.

Sounds great, right?

Well ... not entirely.

Despite its many virtues, Jurassic World is marred by an abundance of unpleasant, mean-spirited and just plain stupid characters who spend the entire film behaving like complete idiots. On top of which, Trevorrow seems to have coached everybody to play at hyper-melodramatic, back row/third balcony opera house levels.

That’s frankly surprising, since Trevorrow’s sole previous credit is 2012’s droll Safety Not Guaranteed, a little sci-fi mystery that gets its oomph from being so deliciously coy, subtle and quiet.

So why switch gears here? Did Trevorrow worry that his human players had to compete with their dino co-stars, when it came to chewing up the scenery?

Whatever the reason, it’s hard to like or admire most of these characters, including the few whom we’re definitely supposed to root for. Brainless behavior demands the opposite; I’d have been perfectly content to watch a few more become dino-chow.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Love & Mercy: God only knows

Love & Mercy (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, profanity and drug use

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.5.15

Brian Wilson’s life story is fascinating enough on its own merits, with enough drama, betrayal and crisis to fuel a lengthy and thoroughly fascinating TV miniseries.

During one of her first encounters with Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, left), during a
seemingly benign afternoon barbecue, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) is about to discover
just how cruel this celebrity psychotherapist can be toward Brian Wilson (John Cusack).
That said, director Bill Pohlad and scripters Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner deserve credit for the intriguing manner in which they’ve chosen to depict these events, in an engaging, economical two-hour film that charts the exuberant highs and heartbreaking lows of a musical genius who truly suffered for his art.

Rather than giving this tale an old-fashioned monaural spin, Pohlad and his writers have opted for a brighter, dual-track stereo treatment, with two actors playing Wilson during the strikingly distinct points of his life.

Paul Dano is spot-on as the cheerfully round-faced 1960s-era Brian, who married teenage sweetheart Marilyn Rovell and spearheaded the enormously popular pop/rock band that released an astonishing 10 albums in four short years. John Cusack, in turn, is equally compelling as the heartbreakingly subdued 1980s-era Brian, initially in thrall to control-freak celebrity psychotherapist Eugene Landy (a truly scary Paul Giamatti).

Artistically, this two-tone portrayal makes perfect sense; Brian became an entirely different person when, during the making of the albums “Pet Sounds” and “Smile,” he succumbed to artistic pressure, drug abuse and (probably) legitimate manic-depressive schizoaffective disorders. No surprise, then, that Pohlad should depict the musician’s before-and-after personas with different actors.

This gimmick isn’t new. Director Tim Fywell guided Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino through the pre- and post-fame guises of Marilyn Monroe, in 1996’s intriguing “Norma Jean & Marilyn.” Not to be outdone, director Todd Haynes employed half a dozen actors — the most intriguing of whom was Cate Blanchett — to depict various aspects of Bob Dylan’s soul, in 2007’s “I’m Not There.”

Stunt casting for its own sake can be an eye-rolling distraction, of course, but the result is entirely different when the project warrants such treatment. In this case, Pohlad’s finished film is by turns fascinating, informative, tender and distressing; I’ve no doubt he and editor Dino Jons├Ąter fretted over every frame, and the timing of every sequence, with the same care that Wilson brought to his later albums.

Pohlad cross-cuts between the parallel storylines, enhancing our fascination by bouncing skillfully to the other time stream each time we settle into a given chapter. That can be jarring, even unsettling, but it also mirrors the increasing chaos into which Brian’s life descends.

Spy: Should have been kept under cover

Spy (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for violence, gore, fleeting graphic nudity, and relentless profanity and coarse dialogue

By Derrick Bang 

Only in Hollywood could somebody get paid big bucks to write this sort of puerile swill.

Only in Hollywood could several levels of (presumably) savvy studio execs have seen any merit in this limp-noodle secret agent spoof.

With another mission behind them, debonair CIA agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) and his
desk-bound handler, Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), enjoy a celebratory dinner. Alas,
Bradley has no idea how much his colleague secretly pines for him ... even thought her
overtures couldn't be more obvious.
Only in Hollywood could a reasonably talented comedian have been “promoted” from successful supporting status, and stuffed into a string of starring roles, where she flails helplessly.

Only in Hollywood would such an individual keep getting additional shots in the barrel, abusing her fans with junk such as Identity Thief and Tammy.

And, just to spread the blame evenly, only in America would such fans continue to reward her efforts by buying tickets. An overall U.S. gross of $84.4 million for Tammy? $134.4 million for Identity Thief?

Seriously?

I guess H.L. Mencken’s 1926 observation remains even truer today: No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.

Or, to quote Walt Kelly’s comic strip character Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Melissa McCarthy has been a valued member of ensemble productions such as Bridesmaids and television’s Gilmore Girls. She and Billy Gardell continue to be a great team on television’s Mike & Molly. She was refreshingly sympathetic in a straight supporting part, in last year’s St. Vincent.

But a little of McCarthy goes a very long way, which is why she’s best used in measured, intermittent doses. When forced to carry an entire film, her extremely narrow acting range becomes glaringly visible; she huffs and puffs from one scene to the next, angrily spitting out her lines, as if daring us to find her anything less than hilarious.

So okay, Melissa; I took that dare a few films back, and I’ll take it anew. You’re still not funny. Your go-to movie persona has become a mean-spirited, potty-mouthed shrike. Your recent work isn’t merely un-funny; it’s sad and pathetic. I cannot imagine why you don’t demand better material, but hey: As long as the money keeps rolling in, I guess it doesn’t matter, right?

Granted, you’re not wholly at fault in this case. Most of the blame for this new film belongs to writer/director Paul Feig, who apparently did this work all by his widdle self. I’m sure he spent at least 15 minutes concocting this twaddle. Strip away the profanity from every character’s lines, remove the juvenile vulgar humor — the sort of coarse one-upsmanship exchanged by 12-year-old boys while surfing for porn behind closed bedroom doors — and we’d be left with a mostly silent movie.

Which would have been a vast improvement.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

I'll See You in My Dreams: Thoughtful character portrait

I'll See You in My Dreams (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for drug use and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang

Sometimes what seems like a comfortable rut actually is a slow slide into prolonged depression, at which point an unexpected crisis — or two — can transform unconfronted anxieties into utter despair.

Once beyond the initial awkwardness of their disparate ages, Carol (Blythe Danner) and
Lloyd (Martin Starr) discover that they genuinely enjoy chatting, and sharing little intimacies.
The question, moving forward, is where this relationship might go.
That’s the subject of director Brett Haley’s sweet, gentle drama, which draws its strength from a subtle and deeply layered performance by Blythe Danner. She stars as Carol Petersen, a comfortably retired single woman who — if asked —would insist that she has made peace with the unexpected loss of a beloved husband, some 20 years earlier.

After all, Carol’s life is filled with activity, much of it revolving around gardening, golf and boisterous bridge games — not much bridge actually being played — with longtime gal pals Rona (Mary Kay Place), Sally (Rhea Perlman) and Georgina (June Squibb). Carol’s schedule is disciplined to a reasonable degree, from the 6 a.m. wake-up buzz of her alarm clock, to a bit of television before lights out somewhere around 11 p.m. each evening.

But Carol hasn’t actually been alone; she has come to depend upon the constant presence of her beloved dog, Hazel. And therein lies the potential for emotional collapse.

After deftly establishing the parameters of Carol’s routine, Haley and co-scripter Marc Basch open their narrative with a gut-wrenching sequence. Hazel clearly is old, and so we’re not surprised by what occurs ... but animal lovers will have considerable difficulty surviving the subsequent scene in a veterinarian’s office, as Carol bids goodbye to her longtime companion.

Danner plays the scene so persuasively that I wondered if it could be genuine, the actress huskily trying to maintain composure while confronting the need to “do the kind thing” for an actual devoted pet. The scene feels that genuine, as anybody who has been there can attest.

And, suddenly, all the scheduled activities that have structured Carol’s life, for so long, have lost their luster. She’s hard-pressed to identify the actual problem, and at this point — this early in the film — she may not even be consciously aware that her fragility is rising.

Haley’s film is less a conventional drama, with strong plot points, and more a thoughtful tone poem: an often painfully intimate opportunity for us, as viewers, to confront our own perceived stability. The verisimilitude is strong. Danner’s Carol could be the vibrant and cheerful neighbor next door: the one with whom we exchange pleasant greetings, but rarely probe further. In a way, Haley and Basch quietly suggest that there’s much to be gained from getting to know such folks better, because we’re all — each of us — worth knowing better.