Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Walk: Nary a misstep

The Walk (2015) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated PG, for minor profanity and chaste nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.2.15

And I worried that this film might be dull.

The saga of Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, in the summer of 1974? OK, granted; it was an amazingly audacious stunt, and an impressive display of awesome dexterity and physical prowess. But how in the world could that sustain a two-hour film?

Once they've become an item, Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) shares his impossible,
idealistic scheme with Annie (Charlotte Le Bon): to somehow run a cable between the two
closest corners of New York's fabled Twin Towers, and then to embark on the most
incredible — and dangerous — wire walk ever attempted.
Silly me.

Director Robert Zemeckis’ exhilarating depiction of Petit’s bold feat is almost as exciting as the historic walk itself. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s breathtaking, crystal-clear camera angles blend seamlessly with Kevin Baillie’s visual effects, to put us “right there” at virtually impossible moments.

I haven’t been this dazzled by a film’s visuals since Claudio Miranda’s Academy Award-winning work in 2012’s Life of Pi.

Wolski and Baillie also make excellent use of their 3D effects, for which this film clearly was designed. The dimensionality is integrated smoothly, often to enhance the sense of vertigo — particularly during the third act — as we peer down from the top of one of the towers. 3D cinematography hasn’t been used this well since Martin Scorsese’s marvelous handling of the technology, in 2011’s Hugo.

Inevitably, whether at a circus or elsewhere, we always watch wire-walkers from below; it simply isn’t possible to do otherwise. But that’s precisely what Zemeckis and his team pull off: We often experience Petit’s work from above — disorienting enough — or even as if we’re standing alongside him.

Our rational minds insist that what we’re watching couldn’t possibly be real, just as our hearts suggest otherwise.

Which is a reaction that Petit, an impudent showman through and through, would both understand and encourage.

The riveting screenplay — by Zemeckis and co-scripter Christopher Browne, based on Petit’s memoir To Reach the Clouds — also contributes greatly to this film’s enthralling allure. Zemeckis and Browne don’t treat this as “mere” build-up to a fleeting display of athletic grace; it is, instead, one of cinema’s ultimate, clenched-knuckle heist flicks, told with the panache and verbal flamboyance of a circus barker.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Intern: Definitely worth hiring

The Intern (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for suggestive content and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.25.15

I love it when a sharp, savvy script converges with a talented cast able to give every line just the right reading.

Entrusted with a rather unusual "secret mission," Ben (Robert De Niro, far right) and his new
acolytes — from left, Jason (Adam DeVine), Davis (Zack Pearlman) and Lewis (Jason
Orley) — rush to their destination while discussing optimal approaches to this
challenging assignment.
Writer/director Nancy Meyers has built a career on cleverly sculpted romantic comedies that are smart and funny, while — here’s the best part — displaying subtle streaks of social commentary. Her best films have poked amiable fun at sexism, ageism and the gender divide, while simultaneously giving us utterly adorable, can’t-miss characters.

Meyers also has a knack for attracting top talent, whether in Something’s Gotta Give (Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton), It’s Complicated (Meryl Streep, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin) or the shamefully underrated The Holiday (Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Cameron Diaz and Jack Black).

Yes, Meyers’ films often veer dangerously close to sloppy sentimentality, but she unerringly stays on the right side of that line. She’s one of very few contemporary directors with an eye and ear for what made Hollywood’s Golden Age romantic comedies work so well, while simultaneously concocting stories — and droll situations — that are very much Here And Now.

Her newest effort, The Intern, is the best yet: a charming premise that brings the best from stars Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway. And, as also is the case with a Nancy Meyers film, she pays equal attention to all the supporting roles — even the smallest walk-ons — granting us a rich and thoroughly entertaining tableau.

You’ll have so much fun, that you may not realize how cleverly Meyers inserts some gentle life lessons.

Ben Whittaker (De Niro), 70 years old and a widower, is finding retirement less than ideal. He has done all the traditional things — traveling, exercising, taking classes — but finds them ephemeral and unfulfilling. He’s lonely but not desperate, restless but not depressed. He just needs to feel needed.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Black Mass: Nightmarish deal with the devil

Black Mass (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for brutal violence, profanity, sexual candor and drug use

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.18.15

Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas.

The saga of gangster James “Whitey” Bulger was far from complete when Boston Globe reporters Gerard O’Neill and Dick Lehr — the former a Pulitzer winner, the latter a Pulitzer finalist — published their true-crime saga Black Mass in 2000. With his criminal empire having been crushed during the previous decade; Whitey already was six years a fugitive.

It may seem like a quiet meal, but the atmosphere is far from benign ... particularly when
mob enforcer Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane, far left) decides that FBI agent John Morris
(David Harbour, far right) has insulted him. Suddenly, even Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp,
center left) and fellow FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) are sure what'll happen...
He remained on the run until June 22, 2011, when he was arrested quietly in Santa Monica, Calif. Two courtroom trials later, jaw-dropping for their sordid detail, Whitey — then 83 years old — was sentenced to two consecutive life terms (plus five years, for good measure). He’s now a permanent resident at a Florida federal penitentiary.

Whitey’s vicious career, and the scandalous FBI incompetence that allowed it to flourish, have been brought to the big screen by director Scott Cooper, whose two previous films — Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace — demonstrated an impressive flair for character drama. Cooper doesn’t disappoint here either; armed with a taut and densely layered script adaptation by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, the director delivers a horrific portrait of unrestrained evil and corruption.

The film is anchored further by star Johnny Depp’s chilling depiction of Whitey: as far from the comic antics of Capt. Jack Sparrow as could possibly be imagined.

Depp obviously has an affinity for true crime, having previously played John Dillinger in director Michael Mann’s slick and sordid Public Enemies. Awful as Depp’s Dillinger was, though, a bit of the actor’s charm occasionally leaked around the edges, Mann and co-scripters Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman perhaps trying to suggest a soupçon of “honor among thieves” camaraderie.

You won’t find any such quasi-ethical respite here; Depp’s Whitey is the stuff of nightmares, his tightly compressed lips and stone-cold stare as unnerving as his flat, detached manner of speaking. The only thing worse than Whitey’s reluctance to smile, is an occasion that does prompt a death’s-head grin: a certain signal of looming brutality.

Folks will talk about this performance for quite some time.

Everest: Grim, heroic tragedy

Everest (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

Human grit and determination know no bounds, even to the point of neglecting experienced judgment and common sense, in pursuit of ... what, precisely? Bragging rights?

Seems a pretty thin return for risking one’s life.

Granted clear skies and ideal climbing conditions, the members of two teams — from left,
Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) and Beck Weathers (Josh
Brolin) — begin their final assault on Everest's summit. Alas, conditions won't remain
mild for long...
Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest persuasively conveys the jovial, devil-may-care resolve and physical grit that characterize those bent on conquering Earth’s highest and most dangerous summit. The international cast is convincing, particularly while depicting the 24/7 adrenaline rush that fuels such folks during the weeks of preparation leading up to an ascent.

But this isn’t action-oriented melodrama, in the mold of (for example) Sylvester Stallone’s laughably improbable Cliffhanger. Scripters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy have based this film’s narrative on the ill-fated 1996 Everest expeditions that turned tragic with the arrival of a particularly nasty blizzard. Allowing for modest artistic license — and with Nicholson and Beaufoy doing their best to adapt sometimes conflicting accounts from the five (!) books written between 1997 and 2014 — the resulting story feels both authentic and even-handed.

But if some of this film looks familiar, there’s good reason: We’ve been here before. The 1998 IMAX documentary of the same title, the giant-screen format’s biggest hit to date, devoted a chunk of its 45-minute running time to this catastrophe; indeed, Kormákur’s new film references the presence of the IMAX production team.

More recently, documentarian David Breashears’ Storm Over Everest focused exclusively on this 1996 climb.

But even the most successful documentaries never achieve the mainstream penetration of a big-budget, Hollywood-type production, and there’s no denying that these events cried for just such treatment. Kormákur’s heartfelt drama likely will be the final word on this subject, and it’s a worthy historical document.

More than once, in fact, I was reminded of British director Charles Frend’s superlative 1948 drama, Scott of the Antarctic, with John Mills starring as the British explorer whose team tried to become the first to reach the South Pole. Kormákur’s new film is in worthy company.

Maze Runner — The Scorch Trials: A barren wasteland

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, for profanity and relentless action violence

By Derrick Bang 

As was the case with last year’s opening entry in this big-screen franchise, this sequel looks great — the special effects are quite impressive — and the acting is solid.

But the storyline remains bonkers-stupid and utterly impenetrable. If last year’s cliff-hanging Maze Runner left us with far more questions than answers, this second installment doesn’t even try to make sense. It’s as if scripter T.S. Nowlin abandoned any effort to parse James Dasher’s complicated source novel, and chose instead to fabricate one superficial chase sequence after another.

Things seem mighty bad, folks ... then again, maybe our heroes should simply stop looking
over the next ridge. Try as he might, Thomas (Dylan O'Briend, second from left) can't stop
leading his friends ‚ from left, Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster),
Frypan (Dexter Darden) and Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) from one crisis to another.
When our primary protagonist Thomas insists, at one point, that he’s tired of running, I cheerfully agreed: I’m tired of watching him run.

Him and everybody else in this preposterous, kitchen-sink excuse for a sci-fi thriller.

We’d ordinarily be inclined to blame Dasher, since his book logically serves as the source material. But Nowlin’s screenplay bears scant resemblance to Dasher’s novel, perhaps because the filmmakers are trying to condense a five-book (thus far) series into a more compact trilogy. Which would have been a reasonable idea, if Nowlin had the slightest talent for narrative, plot structure or dialogue.

Yep: This is one of those movies with eye-rolling, melodramatically laughable one-liners, invariably delivered with utter sincerity. The cast isn’t at fault; everybody does their best ... but not even seasoned Shakespeareans could wring emotional honesty from these verbal clunkers.

Such dialogue also frequently anticipates moronic behavior. “They’re never gonna stop chasing us,” our heroes lament, having narrowly escaped a massive land- and air-based search party. So what do they do next? They take a long walk across a wholly exposed desert landscape, where — based on what happened just a few scenes earlier — they’d clearly be spotted and captured.

But no: Apparently the bad guys decided not to look that day.

On top of which — and this is Dasher’s fault — I still can’t get beyond his internal technological inconsistencies. Consider the engineering ingenuity and sheer brute manpower that would have been required to build, maintain and operate the massive maze that initially trapped our young heroes. Now ask yourself whether such structures could have been fabricated so quickly — because we now know there were numerous mazes — given the timeline of events as established via maddeningly brief flashbacks.

And, more crucially, to what purpose, precisely? Two films in, and we’ve still no clue as to the original maze’s intent.

On top of which, we’re once again forced to accept a truly dismal picture of human nature under stress: a degree of “civilized” behavior so barbaric, so abhorrent, that it frankly defies description. That’s not merely sad; it’s also loathsome.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Visit: Make other plans!

The Visit (2015) • View trailer 
One star. Rated PG-13, for violence, nudity, mild profanity and disturbing thematic material

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.11.15

That’s it: No more movies by M. Night Shyamalan.

I’m done.

He has exhausted the final reserve of my benefit-of-the-doubt, things-have-to-get-better generosity. The gloves are off: Whatever talent the man had, once upon a time, obviously flew south several migrations ago ... and went extinct.

When Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) share their mounting concerns
about their grandparents during a Skype session with their mother (Kathryn Hahn), the
latter insists that old folks are just, well, a bit set in their way. If only it were that simple...
And shame on every studio — in this newest case, Universal — that has enabled him, by bankrolling and releasing such dreck.

I’d call The Visit his worst effort yet, except that he plumbed those lamentable depths forever and always, with 2010’s atrociously awful live-action adaptation of the cartoon series The Last Airbender. Nor can this newest train wreck lay claim to the title of second worst, because of the equally lamentable Lady in the Water. Not to mention the similarly dreadful After Earth and The Happening.

So I really, really want to know: Why do people keep throwing money at this hack? Don’t track records count for anything?

OK, yes, Shyamalan uncorked a masterpiece chiller with 1999’s The Sixth Sense: a bravura bit of writing and directing, along with a fiendishly clever premise — deftly exploited — that deserved all the good things said about it. And his immediate follow-up, Unbreakable, was reasonably well sculpted.

But the cracks began to show with Signs, and the (bad) writing truly was on the wall when The Village came along. That was a decade ago, and since then we’ve suffered through nothing but swill.

The core problem is easy to identify: Shyamalan has a knack for a nifty premise — and The Visit is no different — but his execution leaves much (actually, everything) to be desired. Clumsy narratives. Badly conceived characters who constantly behave like idiots. Performances so breathless and wooden that they warp. Plot holes large enough to permit the flow of rush-hour traffic.

On top of which, Shyamalan clumsily squanders his own concepts, forsaking any semblance of subtlety for thunderously blatant “clues” that baldly telegraph the supposed “gotcha!” intended to make folks squeal with delight, nod with admiration, and mutter “Wow, I never saw that one coming.”

In your dreams, Mr. Shyamalan.

Friday, September 4, 2015

A Walk in the Woods: Lackadaisical stroll

A Walk in the Woods (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.4.15

It’s easy to understand why the outdoors-y Robert Redford would be drawn to travel author Bill Bryson’s delightful 1998 account of his less-than-illustrious attempt to walk the famed Appalachian Trail ... all 2,200 miles of it, stretching from Georgia’s Springer Mountain to Maine’s Mount Katahdin.

After a particularly difficult day, Bryson (Robert Redford, right) and his good friend Katz
(Nick Nolte) take shelter in a small hut, only to discover — thanks to a scale map of the
entire Appalachian Trail — that they've made far less progress than expected.
The resulting film, gestating since Redford acquired the adaptation rights in 2005, is amiable enough, if superficial: a gentle account of two codgers impulsively deciding to tackle this hiking challenge, and the reality check that almost immediately dimmed — but didn’t quite extinguish — their ambition.

Rather too gentle, alas.

This big-screen Walk in the Woods is disappointing on several levels, most notably because we’ve lost the book’s primary asset: Bryson’s wonderfully wicked, sharply perceptive sense of humor. I usually decry movies that rely on voice-over narration as a crutch, but this one begs for just that touch. (Recall how much Jean Shepherd’s off-camera commentary helped 1983’s A Christmas Story.)

Bryson’s rich voice is wholly absent here, and that’s not merely disappointing; it calls this film’s very existence into question.

Not only that, but Redford’s take on Bryson is all wrong. Redford makes the writer laconic and reflective: a man who keeps close counsel, rarely initiates conversation, and responds briefly, if at all. That’s an apt definition of Redford’s longtime screen persona, as opposed to the quick wit, thoughtful ripostes and sharply descriptive commentary that have characterized Bryson for years.

The second major issue is one of actor hubris. Redford may have been one of the best-preserved 79-year-olds on the planet, when he shot this film, but one cannot ignore the physical limitations that nature imposes with maturity. At 74, co-star Nick Nolte looks 90 (which, yes, is intentional ... to a point).

Age, by itself, certainly is no impediment to endeavors that require stamina and physical competence. Age plus an absolute lack of preparation, however, is an entirely different matter. As depicted here, Bryson’s decision to embark on this expedition — rightly recognized as bonkers by his wife, Catherine (a radiant Emma Thompson) — is a visceral reaction to the death of a friend. A sudden need to prove something.

But the real Bryson was 44 when he began his equally mad journey on March 9, 1996. We can assume that his companion — played here by Nolte — was of a similar age. Let’s just say that ill-prepared fortysomethings are far more credible, under subsequent circumstances, than ill-prepared seventysomethings.

Based on the way Nolte’s red-faced, overweight character huffs and puffs his way through the initial modest climb, he’d have stroked out before the sun set on their first day.