Friday, March 25, 2016

Batman V Superman: Clash of titans

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, and somewhat generously, for brief sensuality and relentless, soul-crushing violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.25.16

A perceptive philosophical theme serves as this film’s beating heart, a tenet that — quite sadly — reflects these cynical and despondent times: that, just as we worship our heroes, we’re all too eager to tear them down.

Alexander Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, center) is delighted to discover that the guests at his
high-society event include inquisitive Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent (Henry Cavill, left)
and fellow industrialist Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck). But why are they present?
Because we’re also jealous, and more than a little fearful. Because such individuals are different than you and I.

The “Big Blue” standing as the moral centerpiece of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice couldn’t be more different than the cheerful, easily admired boy scout played by Christopher Reeve in his quartet of films, several decades and a tidal shift of public sentiment ago. This 21st century Superman exists in a mutinous, resentful America that mirrors our own today, with a populous eager to be suspicious of any “alien” floating amongst us.

The resulting film is grim, its tone unrelentingly melancholy, its subtext downright depressing: We clearly don’t deserve a Superman.

For longtime comic book fans, the irony is palpable. Back in the early 1960s, DC Comics’ stable of heroes — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman et al — were colorful but simplistic champions who routinely, almost casually, defeated equally flamboyant villains in self-contained storylines that mirrored popular TV dramas that did the same: all problems solved in one quick read (or one quick hour), and then on to the next adventure, perhaps with a quip or two. Nobody ever changed, because nobody had anything approaching an actual personality.

Upstart Marvel Comics upended this one-dimensional formula with its eye-opening roster of angst-laden superheroes. When out of their costumes, Spiderman, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four and their brethren felt like the folks next door, complete with anxieties and ground-level responsibilities. Their clashes with bad guys often occurred over multiple-issue story arcs: the outcomes less definitive, and often tinged with regret.

How interesting, then, that these two companies have switched roles en route to big-screen domination. Even at their most dire, Marvel movies are fun, their cataclysmic events leavened with an engaging layer of droll humor: a wink and nudge established the first time Robert Downey Jr. donned his Iron Man togs.

Eye in the Sky: A riveting real-world thriller

Eye in the Sky (2015) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for dramatic intensity, profanity and violent images

By Derrick Bang

Guy Hibbert’s thoughtful screenplay has the unsettling intensity of an immaculately crafted stage play.

Helen Mirren, as Col. Katherine Powell
Indeed, I can see this being a great play, even though its primary characters are spread out across the globe. An imaginative director could handle that detail, much the way Gavin Hood has choreographed this big-screen drama with such authoritative snap.

Eye in the Sky is a taut, up-to-the-minute geo-political thriller that belongs in the company of 1960s Cold War classics such as Fail Safe and Seven Days in May, and more recent efforts such as Thirteen Days and Munich. At its core, Hibbert’s script — which he wrote back in 2008, making it even more cutting-edge — is a study of actions and consequences: to what degree, if any, a desired end justifies the means to obtain it.

Hibbert’s approach is what makes the result so riveting: This is a “process thriller” very much in the mold of 2011’s Margin Call. That film gave us a talking-heads glimpse of the primary players at a Wall Street investment firm who, during the course of 24 hours, watch helplessly as their own previous actions precipitate the 2008 meltdown. You’d think such back-room financial commentary and analysis would be boring, but that was far from the case; the excellent cast brought compelling tension to every aspect of writer/director J.C. Chandor’s script.

As Margin Call was to the 2008 economic crisis, Eye in the Sky is to digital-age drone warfare.

British Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), waking early one morning at her cozy home in Sussex, assumes her decidedly un-cozy duties at a nearby military base. This is likely to be a crucial day: She has been tracking, for six years, a particularly notorious British citizen-turned-terrorist — a radicalized young woman — who is expected to attend a meeting at an Al-Shabaab safe house in a bustling Nairobi neighborhood.

As a bonus, this target is expected to be in the company of at least one other terrorist ranked high on the British/American “most wanted” list.

The developing situation is being monitored from the sky by a surveillance drone piloted by American soldiers at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, and at ground level by Nairobi anti-terrorist personnel. Facial recognition identification, if such an opportunity arises, will be confirmed by an American military analyst stationed in Hawaii. All are in constant contact with Powell.

She, in turn, passes this intel along to her commanding officer, Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, in his final performance), who is spending the day in a London conference room, where he shares these same details with upper-echelon British government overseers. The intention, at every moment, is to follow protocol and chain of command, while adhering to legal justification.

All these players are assembled to monitor a pre-approved “capture mission” that will be coordinated by the Nairobi ground troops. Powell, in charge of the operation, waits only for verification that her targets have arrived.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Bronze: Quite tarnished

The Bronze (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.18.16

Redemption stories are as old as novels themselves, as today’s readers of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and countless other authors can testify. There’s something tremendously satisfying about following the adventures of flawed characters who eventually, finally experience an epiphany, subsequently becoming better versions of themselves.

While a poster of the deceased "Coach P" scowls in the background, Hope (Melissa Rauch)
has an uneasy reunion with long-ago former boyfriend Lance (Sebastian Stan, left). Ben
(Thomas Middleditch), acutely aware of the discomfort, stands ready to intervene if
things get unpleasant.
While this narrative form has been equally popular on the big screen, recent examples have substituted the traditional shortcomings — avarice, deceit, betrayal — with revolting levels of vulgarity and malice. The protagonists in Tammy (Melissa McCarthy), Bad Words (Jason Bateman) and Trainwreck (Amy Schumer), among others, are social pariahs to a degree that is breathtakingly inexcusable ... not to mention their sporting potty-mouths that undoubtedly bring joy to giggling adolescents.

Which is, perhaps, an intriguing social statement ... since such uncouth, infantile sensibilities now seem perfectly acceptable to thirty- and fortysomethings.

(And current Republican presidential candidates. But that’s another story.)

More critically, the balance has been skewed. When we spend 92 percent of a film being horrified by our main character’s relentlessly nasty behavior, is salvation even possible? And even if a script arbitrarily insists on yes ... is it deserved?

The Bronze straddles a very narrow vaulting horse. Some will argue, with complete justification, that the film slips and lands with a thud on the wrong side of the mat. I’m inclined toward feeble generosity, thanks to a couple of clever last-minute plot twists ... but the viewing experience remains wincingly painful at times. Lots of times.

This Sundance Festival indie is a pet project by actress Melissa Rauch, well recognized in her long-running role as Bernadette Rostenkowski, on TV’s The Big Bang Theory. She and husband Winston co-wrote the script; they also co-produced the film itself, in which she stars. The result is — to say the least — light-years removed from her work in Big Bang, and not for the faint of heart (or easily offended).

She plays Hope Ann Gregory, who as a hard-working teenage gymnast became America’s sweetheart after bravely performing at the 2004 Olympics, despite having ruptured an Achilles tendon. The result: an unexpected and well-earned bronze medal. She returned home to a hero’s welcome in the working-class town of Amherst, Ohio, determined to train hard, re-ignite her career, and take a gold next time out.

But it wasn’t to be.

Divergent: Allegiant — Sci-fi twaddle

Divergent: Allegiant (2016) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, dramatic intensity and shadowed nudity

By Derrick Bang

With apologies for the unavoidable pun — given that Miles Teller is one of this film’s stars — you could get whiplash trying to keep up with the shifting character loyalties here.

This person is a good guy. Oh, dear; he’s really a bad guy. No, he’s only pretending to be a bad guy; he’s actually a good guy. Damn; he really is a bad guy.

Having escaped from what has become a mess back in Chicago, our heroes — from left,
Christina (Zoë Kravitz), Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), Caleb (Ansel Elgort),
Tori (Maggie Q) and Peter (Miles Teller) — confront the massive wall that separates their
city from the outer wasteland known as the Fringe.
That person is dedicated to the cause of peace and freedom. Hmmm, she seems to have hidden megalomaniacal tendencies. Uh, hang on; is that a glimmer of conscience? No, false alarm; she’s genuinely deranged. But ... then ... how can she lead a kumbaya hug in the final scene?

Our heroine is smart, brave and resourceful. Actually, she’s rather naïve and foolish. Well, hey, cut her some slack; she really is a dedicated and stalwart heroine. No, she’s genuinely stupid and unbelievably gullible, and doesn’t deserve to be leading her companions into constant peril, let alone suckering us viewers into tolerating yet another two hours of nonsense driven almost entirely by her personality flaws.

If all this sounds strained, random and utterly bewildering ... there’s a reason for that.

Like at least one other current big-screen franchise derived from young adult fantasy lit — and, God knows, we’ve been drowning in them lately — the Divergent series feels like everything is made up from one moment to the next. We can’t really blame novelist Veronica Roth, on whose books these films are based; as the film series has progressed, the scripts have, ah, diverged significantly from their respective sources.

Mostly, though, it remains a case of diminishing returns. Whether we’re discussing the Twilight series, or Divergent, or (definitely the worst) Maze Runner, or even The Hunger Games, each new film in its respective franchise has been notably weaker. In part, it’s because the various scripters and directors have deviated too much, abandoning elements that made these young heroines and heroes interesting in the first place, in favor of mindless running, fighting, jumping, fighting, arguing and more fighting.

But the bigger problem does lie with the original book authors, who failed to construct these alternate realms with adequate creativity, plot logic and continuity. Time and again, I’m reminded how vastly superior J.K. Rowling is, not only as a writer and world-builder, but as a novelist capable of fabricating fully dimensioned characters not only with her core protagonists, but with supporting players and casual bystanders.

From books one through seven — and films one through eight — Harry Potter’s adventures flow smoothly and logically, with impressive continuity elements that signify very, very careful planning. People don’t think or act stupidly in Rowling’s fantastical realm.

I sure wish the same could be said here.

Friday, March 11, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane: Do drop in!

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, brief violence and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.11.16

The original Cloverfield was a cinematic stealth bomb that producer J.J. Abrams unleashed on an unsuspecting public in January 2008.

When Howard (John Goodman, right) thinks that his younger companions are keeping
secrets, his rage is palpable: something that Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and
Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) already have discovered. Alas, the situation is about to get
even worse ... thanks to the unveiling of a particularly nasty barrel.
It remains one of the very few truly satisfying “found footage” movies: significantly more rewarding than The Blair Witch Project and dozens of even paler imitators. Abrams also quite craftily kept it under wraps during production, resulting in an entertaining surprise for those who love such things.

Flash-forward to the present day, and Abrams has done it again. 10 Cloverfield Lane also was made under heavily cloaked conditions, its title revealed only a few weeks back, when the initial trailers landed in theaters. Fans obviously got the word; Wednesday evening’s preview screening had a massive turn-away crowd.

This new film offers a similarly tranquil prologue, an unsettling first act that builds to a suspenseful and exciting climax, and then a bonkers, hell-for-leather “epilogue” that takes the narrative into an entirely different direction. It’s fun, nervous-making and suggestively grody (gotta love movies that let our imaginations concoct the worst).

But it has very little to do with Cloverfield, and thus isn’t really a sequel ... although Abrams cheekily dubs it a “blood relative” or “spiritual successor.” This one offers a new director (Dan Trachtenberg) and three new writers (Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle), and they deliver what would have been dubbed a well-crafted “B picture,” back in the day. (The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a good example.)

Trachtenberg, Abrams & Co. also have made impressive use of their quite modest budget; rarely will you see money spent so well. I’m also reminded of 2012’s Cabin in the Woods: an entirely different sort of film — gleefully deranged horror, for openers — albeit with a similarly cunning and uneasily humorous approach.

Best of all, Trachtenberg’s film is not a “found footage” project, and thank God for that: no shaky camera work or incessant, awkward selfies. Cinematographer Jeff Cutter handles this like any other mainstream suspense film.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Zootopia: A menagerie of fun

Zootopia (2016) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated PG, and needlessly, for mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.4.16

I’ve said it before: Many of the best scripts these days are attached to animated films.

Disney’s Zootopia is work of subversive genius: an enormously clever project that functions both as a charming, suspenseful and even exciting adventure, and as a compelling parable of tolerance and inclusion. Its arrival in theaters today could not be more perfectly timed, given the current state of this country’s social fabric.

Hoping to track down a license plate that'll lead to a key suspect, and with time of the
essence, Officer Judy Hopps is forced to deal with a sluggish DMV clerk misleadingly
named Flash, much to the amusement of the foxy Nick Wilde.
Pixar’s Wall-E was pretty sneaky, in a similar vein, with respect to its strong environmental message about the need to be better stewards of planet Earth. But Zootopia is even more pointed, without really seeming that way. Rarely has a moral gone down more easily, or more enjoyably.

I’m reflexively wary of screenplays that credit multiple writers, since too many cooks generally spoil the soup. But executive producer John Lasseter’s success in fine-tuning by committee definitely pays off here: This film’s eight (!) credited writers have delivered a savvy, witty narrative that flows smoothly from one scene to the next, carefully developing numerous character dynamics, and building to a delightfully satisfying conclusion.

Even the small stuff is handled well. Following Chekhov’s maxim that every memorable element in a story must be necessary and irreplaceable, we get a thoroughly satisfying payoff — during this film’s climax — to a cute bit in the first few minutes: something that you’re likely to dismiss as a throwaway giggle, until its resurrection. That’s the hallmark of skillful scripting, and an excellent indication of the meticulously crafted care that has gone into this project.

Better still, all these elements are chaperoned with similar skill by co-directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush.

Our saga takes place in an alternate universe where all the other members of God’s mammalian kingdom have evolved to control their world. (In other words, no people.) As explained during a school play prologue featuring a young and irrepressible bunny named Judy Hopps, their society has evolved beyond the traditional roles of predator and prey, so that all animals co-exist peacefully, and with the belief that no matter what your species — from the largest elephant to the tiniest shrew — you can become anything your heart and dedication desire.

Even so, the unspoken reality is that larger and more powerful animals (“predators”) generally are viewed as higher-class, and possess esteemed and politically controlling careers. Lower-ranking mammals — particularly smaller herbivores (“prey”) — remain a lesser group, consigned to farming or blue-collar livelihoods, and often are looked down upon ... despite being the majority of the overall population.

London Has Fallen: Xenophobic propaganda

London Has Fallen (2016) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated R, for relentless violence and profanity

By Derrick Bang

Aaron Eckhart’s Benjamin Asher surely is the unluckiest U.S. President in cinema history.

Bad enough that he only narrowly survived being held hostage by North Korean terrorists, in 2013’s deplorably violent and inexcusably jingoistic Olympus Has Fallen. Now, drawn to London to attend the state funeral of the British Prime Minister, President Asher finds himself targeted — along with half a dozen other Western European heads of state — by a lethal arms dealer who also is one of the world’s most wanted criminals.

When their helicopter is shot down by rooftop terrorists armed with Stinger missiles, ace
Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler, right) is the only man left to protect
U.S. President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) from hoards of gun-toting thugs.
Fortunately, in both cases, ace Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is on hand to save the day.

For the most part, director Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen is the sort of bullet-laden action thriller that generally goes straight to late-night time slots on Cinemax and lesser cable/satellite movie channels. The plot is predictably silly, the good guys utterly indestructible — aside from those dispatched as sacrificial lambs — and the bad guys thoroughly reprehensible.

The difference, as was the case with this series’ first entry, is that London Has Fallen boasts a better-than-average cast, with Butler and Eckhart supported by Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett and numerous other solid character actors. But even good actors can’t do much with dumb scripts, a grim premise and vapid execution.

Najafi brings nothing to the party. His camera set-ups are humdrum, and he hasn’t the faintest idea how to build suspense. This is little more than run and shoot, run and shoot.

The (modestly) good news is that this new film isn’t quite as offensively pugnacious as its predecessor, which was scripted solely by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt. They’re assisted this time by co-writers Christian Gudegast and Chad St. John, although I can’t imagine why four people were required to write such a simplistic, comic book plot.

On top of which, the flag-waving, gung-ho patriotism that Rothenberger and Benedikt established in Olympus is just as evident here, and perhaps even more so. Films of this nature are an embarrassment, with their suggestion that brave and resourceful Americans — and only Americans — are the one thing preventing maddened terrorists from invading and controlling the entire free world.

Which is to say, this script is offensively cavalier with its treatment of government officials — and their colleagues — from France, Italy, Germany, Japan and elsewhere. I guess the British should feel lucky that they get to help Banning. A little.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

National Parks Adventure: Truly inspirational

National Parks Adventure (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang

Famed naturalist John Muir expressed it best, with a quote referenced in this sumptuous new IMAX travel documentary:

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.

Bryce Canyon National Park
During the mainstream rise of giant-screen documentaries that began in the 1970s, one production team has stood out for its crowd-pleasing blend of stunning cinematography, topical subjects and gentle advocacy: director Greg MacGillivray and producer Shaun MacGillivray, better known as the driving force behind MacGillivray Freeman Films. They’ve produced 38 films for IMAX, garnered two Academy Award nominations, and seen three of their documentaries inducted into the IMAX Hall of Fame (1976’s To Fly, 1995’s The Living Sea and — no surprise — 1998’s Everest).

I fully expect their newest, National Parks Adventure, to be accorded the same honor one day.

Thanks to a fateful Yosemite camping trip that Muir took with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 — an event recreated here — the latter was inspired to create five new national parks and 18 national monuments. That number had grown to 14 parks and 21 monuments when the National Park Service became a U.S. government agency on Aug. 25, 1916, via an act signed by President Woodrow Wilson.

Today, our country boasts 407 protected national park sites — monuments, seashores, recreation areas, lakeshores and historic sites — totaling an impressive 84 million acres: roughly the size of Germany. The National Parks Service will celebrate its centennial this summer, and I’m sure this new MacGillivray Freeman project’s timing is no accident.

The production team visited 30 of those national parks during the making of this film, while concentrating on roughly a dozen. The journey unfolds in engaging fashion, as we accompany a trio of people who’ve made visits to these scenic wonders an annual summer road trip: famed climber Conrad Anker, adventure photographer Max Lowe, and climber and artist Rachel Pohl.

We thus get the equivalent of back-stage passes as they climb the wonderfully odd-shaped rock formations of Bryce Canyon National Park; scale the massive parallel cracks of the Devil’s Tower National Monument, which Native Americans believed were the long, slashing claw marks of a giant bear; walk beneath — and climb — the frozen waterfalls of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore; and — in what seems sheer insanity — recklessly race mountain bikes along the sandstone seabeds of Moab’s Slickrock Trail.

It’s all breathtaking, particularly as recorded by aerial cinematographer Ron Goodman, who captures the vertigo-inducing vistas with (geek alert) his gyroscopically stabilized SpaceCam helicopter mounts.