Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Lunchbox: A wonderful meal

The Lunchbox (2013) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated PG, for no useful reason, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang

Movie buffs live for this moment: the thrill of discovery, striking when you least expect it.

The Lunchbox, an impressively accomplished feature debut for writer/director Ritesh Batra, is a bittersweet romantic charmer: by turns droll, sensitive and achingly poignant. And although we’re thoroughly absorbed by the core story involving two lonely people, Batra also delivers a perceptive analysis of big-city Mumbai, as it struggles at a cultural crossroads sparked by the age-old clash between tradition and progress.

On top of which, we get some astute social commentary on the nature of love, the sad fate of those who settle, and the possibly greater emotional rewards for those who defy expectations and, well, take an impulsive plunge.

Not bad, for a 104-minute film that spends almost all of its time with just three characters.

Batra’s narrative also is a cinematic valentine to the grand tradition of epistolary novels, ranging from classics such as Fanny Hill and Dracula, to more modern examples such as The Color Purple and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Indeed, I frequently was reminded of Helene Hanff’s marvelous 1970 book, 84, Charing Cross Road, for reasons that I can’t specify without spoiling some of the delights to be found in Batra’s film.

And, finally, mention must be made of the wholly immersive performances from the excellent cast, starting with veteran Indian actor Irrfan Khan, who seems everywhere these days. Aside from a busy schedule in his native country, American audiences will recognize him from Slumdog Millionaire and The Amazing Spider-Man; he also was the best part of Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Lifeof Pi, as the adult Pi Patel.

He stars here as Saajan Fernandes, a government accountant who has toiled for 35 years in an employee- and paper-strewn office that could, in different hands, be the subject of biting satire. But Batra’s touch is resolutely serious, his approach matter-of-fact. We’ve absolutely no doubt that scores of such offices exist throughout Mumbai, equally staffed (stuffed?) with quiet men who juggle facts and figures, struggling with pencil, ink and hand calculators, nary a computer to be seen.

Saajan is weeks from retirement, and therefore saddled with the responsibility of training his excitable young replacement: Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), about whom, more in a moment.

Batra’s plot is driven by his story’s fourth primary “character,” the astonishing Mumbai tradition orchestrated daily by the dabbawallahs, a community of roughly 5,000 deliverymen who ferry between 175,000 and 200,000 hot meals from the kitchens of housewives to the offices of their husbands. The numbers are staggering, the process nothing short of amazing, as these lunches cross the city via bicycle, bus and train ... even during monsoons.

The positions are hereditary, dating back some 130 years, and even more impressive for the fact that almost all dabbawallahs are illiterate. The meals reach their proper destinations via a complex code of colors and symbols: a system that even led to a flattering 2010 study by the Harvard Business School ... a point of pride mentioned by one dabbawallah, at a key moment in this story.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Railway Man: Journey to serenity

Railway Man (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for highly disturbing scenes of torture and war violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.25.14

It’s somewhat ironic that the “code of silence” shared by former British prisoners of war who survived their WWII ordeal, while forced to help construct the Siam-Burma railway, seems to have been echoed by filmmakers.

The calm before the storm: Patti (Nicole Kidman) has fallen deeply in love with Eric
(Colin Firth), despite knowing very little about his past. Details will emerge soon enough,
at which point we'll find out just how determined this woman can be, when it comes to
uncovering the truth.
Following the 1957 release of director David Lean’s classic (if fictionalized) Bridge on the River Kwai, nobody has re-visited those events on the big screen.

Ironic, because — as often happens — truth is far more powerful than fiction. And, in this particular case, even a bit stranger.

Director Jonathan Teplitzky’s adaptation of Eric Lomax’s memoir, The Railway Man, is a deeply personal film: by turns grim, heartbreaking and spiritually uplifting. It’s propelled by yet another impressive and emotionally complex performance from star Colin Firth, who appears to be cornering the 21st century market on delicately articulated psychological turmoil.

Merely to glance upon Firth’s face is to share in the grief of a man we don’t yet know; the invisible scars radiate from him in waves.

But Firth isn’t alone. He’s matched, scene for scene, by Nicole Kidman’s equally fine work. Her part isn’t as showy, but it’s just as crucial; she delivers the same persuasive power with small gestures. A tilt of the head, a half-smile that vanishes before blossoming fully. The beginnings of a comment, swallowed before any words escape her lips. A sense that this woman constantly walks on eggshells, lest she unknowingly awaken more dormant memories in the man she loves, but doesn’t yet know or understand.

Memorably deft performances, in both cases.

For the most part, the same can be said of scripters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, who labored for years to turn Lomax’s book into a film. Their first act is a clever tease: deceptively light and sweet, almost a frothy romance, before dark storm clouds begin to smother the cheerful, sun-speckled tone.

The longer second act is horrific, in the manner of all powerful WWII sagas. The narrative may be far removed from the usual Western European setting, and the enemy faces may be different, but barbarism is universal. We wonder, once again, at man’s ability to debase and torture his peers. Not even war — not even this war — seems an adequate excuse for such spiteful cruelty.

The third act ... well, that’s where Boyce and Paterson falter a bit. But only a bit, and I’ll get back to that.

Brick Mansions: Thick as a...

Brick Mansions (2014) • View trailer 
One star. Rated PG-13, despite frenetic gunfire, relentless violence, profanity, drug content, sexual menace and racial epithets

By Derrick Bang

My 8-year-old nephew could have written a better script.

Pinned down by an overhead sniper, Lino (David Belle, left) and Damien (Paul Walker)
try to figure out their next move. It won't be hard; in a movie this daft, I'm sure they
could just sprout wings and fly up to confront their attacker.
I marvel at the fact that people — in this case, Luc Besson and Bibi Naceri — got paid actual money to generate such swill. This inept excuse for an action flick may not be as disgustingly mean-spirited as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent Sabotage, but it’s just as stupid.

Actually, Brick Mansions isn’t even a movie; it’s just a big-screen talent showcase for French parkour founder David Belle, a fast-moving force of nature best known as a stunt coordinator on films such as Transporter 2, Colombiana and The Family. Belle is the real star here, and — I cannot lie — his jaw-dropping free running, climbing, jumping, hopping and bopping are a sight to behold.

Poor Paul Walker — the late Paul Walker — may be top-billed, but he’s little more than a shadow in Belle’s wake.

And both of them are ill-served by this limp-noodle project from Besson, the French movie machine — he also co-produced this junker — who dashes off scripts, individually or collaboratively, like grocery lists. And, frankly, filming a grocery list might have given us a better plot.

Besson has delivered numerous enjoyable hits, from La Femme Nikita and The Transporter to Taken. But he’s also responsible for a lot of disappointing junk, including recent efforts such as Lockout and this year’s Kevin Costner vehicle, 3 Days to Kill.

Brick Mansions actually is an American remake of an earlier Besson/Naceri script, 2004’s District 13. Belle played the same character in that version — same name, even — which was set in the “futuristic” Paris ghettos of 2010, where an undercover cop and an ex-thug (Belle’s part) teamed up to infiltrate a criminal gang in order to defuse a neutron bomb.

Imagine. I managed to type that last sentence with a straight face.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Transcendence: A whole new level of tedium

Transcendence (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action and violence, brief profanity and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.18.14

The White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass may have been able to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast, but smart screenwriters limit themselves to one.

Expecting her former colleagues to be amazed, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) shows Joseph
(Morgan Freeman) and Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) through the massive underground
complex that has been built to her deceased husband's specifications ... via his
AI avatar, who watches closely from a series of computer monitors.
Meaning, viewers generally are willing to stretch credibility and accommodate one massive leap of faith per movie. Transcendence kicks off with an intriguing premise and rather quickly unveils its fanciful notion. Fair enough: We buy it, for the sake of the impending drama.

But first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen doesn’t know when to quit. He piles absurdity atop contrivance, then gets sloppy with logic, basic human nature and socio-political behavior. By the third act, you’ll lose track of the glaring plot-holes.

Newbie director Wally Pfister doesn’t do much to improve the situation; in fact, he makes it worse. While he deserves credit for drawing compelling performances from his stars, Pfister also succumbs to the weakness suffered by most cinematographers who insist on helming a movie: too much reliance on arty scene compositions and camera shots, and a smothering atmosphere of Great Significance.

Pfister is best known as director Christopher Nolan’s visual amanuensis: the cameraman behind The Prestige, the Batman trilogy and most particularly Inception, for which Pfister won an Academy Award. He has given Transcendence the same labored, walking-through-glue self-importance that made Inception such a chore to watch.

Every scene seems to carry an invisible subtitle: “This is really cool, and very important, so pay close attention.”

Yawn. Wake me when it’s over.

And, as is the case with many first-time scripters, Paglen’s so-called “original” narrative begs, borrows and steals from many other, better sources. Avid sci-fi buffs will recognize strong elements from films such as 1970’s Colossus: The Forbin Project and 1974’s Phase IV, and books such as Greg Bear’s Blood Music and Michael Crichton’s Prey.

Finally, on top of all their other sins, Paglen and Pfister open their film in the aftermath of horrific events — thus ruining the suspense they quite easily could have built — and then flash back five years, to show us how everything went to hell. That’s an irritating cliché these days, and one that makes sense only if it later turns out that assumptions derived from said prologue are inaccurate, as a result of a clever twist.

No clever twists here. Just a long, slow descent into sci-fi silliness.

Dom Hemingway: For whom the belle tolls

Dom Hemingway (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for nudity, sexual content, violence, drug use and pervasive profanity

By Derrick Bang

We’ve recently been blessed with a couple of show-stopping soliloquies.

Fresh out of prison, Dom (Jude Law, left) cheerfully follows longtime friend and criminal
colleague Dickie (Richard E. Grant) on a trip to the South of France, where Dom fully
expects to be rewarded — very generously — for keeping his mouth shut during a
12-year stretch.
Matthew McConaughey’s coked-out stock-whisperer scene, as he describes the concept behind fugazi to a still-naïve Leonardo DiCaprio, is by far the best part of the otherwise bloated Wolf of Wall Street. It’s acting genius on McConaughey’s part; he’s positively electrifying.

The same can be said of Jude Law’s opening monologue in Dom Hemingway, as he waxes rhapsodic about the most cherished part of his male anatomy. It’s a jaw-dropping introduction to this film’s title character, with Law going on an on and on, never pausing for breath, in a single dynamite take for cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who just lets the camera roll. Law builds to a ferocity that would have riveted 16th century, standing-room patrons at the Globe Theatre ... although, it must be admitted, the profanity present in this lust-laden oration would have scorched the earth for miles around.

Law builds to a furious, fulminating, saliva-laden climax — in more ways than one — and leaves us utterly breathless.

I’d love to say the rest of writer/director Richard Shepard’s film lives up to this prologue. Sadly, not the case.

Although he’d been busy for well over a decade earlier, Shepard came to everybody’s attention with 2005’s The Matador, a marvelously stylish crime noir comedy. Shepard’s cheeky script notwithstanding, that film got much of its juice from the way star Pierce Brosnan — normally regarded as refined, genteel and immaculately turned out — went down and dirty as a world-weary assassin for hire.

Brosnan’s scruffy stomp through a hotel lobby, clad only in his skivvies, may have been that year’s best single movie scene.

Shepard clearly tries for the same vibe with Dom Hemingway, but his unfocused script can’t settle on a particular mood. Although the narrative could be considered a journey toward redemption by a career criminal who regards himself as the world’s best safe-cracker, the tone shifts wildly from real-world tension and lethal danger, to family melodrama, and even the heightened fantasyland of magic realism.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Raid 2: Upping the ante

The Raid 2 (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for strong, bloody violence, gore, profanity and occasional nudity

By Derrick Bang

With 2011’s The Raid, writer/director Gareth Evans was just flexing his muscles.

Anticipation is everything: Our hero, Rama (Iko Uwais, left) endures considerable
punishment before his climactic confrontation with an opponent known only as
The Assassin (Cecep Arif Rahman), but the wait is justified. Director Gareth Evans
unleashes a battle royale that must be seen to be believed.
Having now released a sequel, Evans’ master plan has become clear: He’s going for an underworld crime epic that’s the martial arts equivalent of Sergio Leone’s 1984 masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in America.

Evans is nothing if not ambitious, and he delivers. The Raid 2 is a bravura display of action mayhem, delivered with superbly choreographed panache and layered with enough simmering sub-plots to keep this narrative percolating not only through this sequel’s 150 minutes, but well into the already planned next installment.

Evans has the additional benefit of the ideal acting collaborator in Iko Uwais, who wears his tortured nobility like a shield. Uwais’ Rama is the superlative hero: Jakarta’s last and best honest cop, whose trial by repeated fire pushes him to horrific extremes not merely to save his life, but — far more importantly — also his soul.

We’re dealing here with crime fiction’s ultimate moral imperative: Is it possible for a good man to remain pure, while doing the dirty work required to combat evil?

Tormented angst is well and good; it’s always nice to identify with our protagonist. But Evans also knows how to please the martial arts fans who’ve hungered for an audacious, densely layered follow-up to Quentin Tarantino’s two-part Kill Bill epic. Rest assured, The Raid 2 satisfies that itch, and then some.

This new film’s narrative kicks off seconds after the events in the previous film, which left Rama’s rookie cop the lone survivor of a special-forces assault on a 15-story slum building laden with thugs taking orders from their brutal boss on the top floor.

Unfortunately, bad as that guy was, he was merely a mid-sized predator in a much larger food chain. If Rama is hailed as a hero, he and his family will be executed as a warning to other potentially honest cops with virtuous notions. Instead, Rama’s boss — clandestinely doing his best to root out departmental corruption — concocts a dangerous plan that begins with the very public announcement that the aforementioned raid left no survivors.

Rama is given a new identity as a low-level thug named Yuda, who establishes his rep by beating up a local politician’s son and getting tossed into prison. Once incarcerated, our hero must figure out a way to cozy up to Uco (Arifin Putra), son of Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo), one of the two Jakarta criminal kingpins who’ve ruled the city via a mutual truce that has lasted for years.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Draft Day: Quite a fumble

Draft Day (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.11.14

I’ve no doubt that a compelling film could be spun from the suspense, acrimony, dashed hopes and back-room negotiating that lead up to the annual NFL draft, but scripters Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman didn’t find it.

With his job and the fate of his team hanging in the balance, Sonny (Kevin Costner,
center) debates the merits of a potential draft choice with league "capologist" Ali
(Jennifer Garner). Their discussion includes numerous pregnant pauses because,
well, Sonny and Ali also are An Item, and she's, well, pregnant. Just the sort of detail
one would expect from a football league war room, right?
Nor did director Ivan Reitman, who can’t seem to decide whether he’s making a mild farce or a straight drama. No surprise, since Reitman remains best known for his 1980s triple-play of Stripes, Ghostbusters and Twins. He’s not done so well of late, with a string of forgettable junk that includes Evolution and My Super Ex-Girlfriend.

But sports drama? Not even close. Reitman’s most mature and subtly pleasing effort remains 1993’s Dave, which owes its juice to Gary Ross’ superlative script and Kevin Kline’s sublime starring performance.

Draft Day has neither. Kevin Costner tries his best with this flimsy material, but his limited thespic range isn’t up to the subtlety demanded by his role. It’s pretty bad when we can’t tell the difference between Costner looking happy, looking worried or looking irritated. It’s all the same bland expression.

Comparisons to Moneyball are inevitable, since both films deal with the fine points of building a winning sports franchise. But that’s where the comparison ends; Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian wrote a genius script for Moneyball — working from a story by Stan Chervin, and a book by Michael Lewis — and the result was mesmerizing drama that drew much of its power from the clever way we were inserted into the action. Most crucially, Moneyball never talked down to its audience.

Rothman and Joseph, in great contrast, assume that we’re blithering idiots; their screenplay gracelessly spoon-feeds details in a way that becomes quite tiresome. (This project unbelievably topped Hollywood’s 2012 “Black List” of best unproduced scripts.) As we initially visit each of the football franchises involved with this story, a text card gives us the city, in bold type (CLEVELAND!), followed by a second card that identifies the team with the sort of breathless emphasis associated with screaming tabloid headlines (Home of the BROWNS!).

Actually, that’s not Reitman’s worst stylistic offense. He and cinematographer Eric Steelberg obviously adore their horizontal cross-fades, with one image sliding across the screen to intersect with another, sometimes allowing a foreground figure to “intrude” into the neighboring scene. It’s a slick trick, visually ... the first time. And the second. Maybe even the third.

By the 50th time, however, we’re well and truly sick of it. Camera gimmicks of this nature only succeed when they’re a) instrumental to the story; and b) employed sparingly. The finest example remains Haskell Wexler’s use of split screens in 1968’s original Thomas Crown Affair, a pinnacle seldom achieved since then. Steelberg’s technique here does absolutely nothing to advance the story; he’s merely showing off.

Rio 2: Back to the jungle

Rio 2 (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated G, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang

Next to co-founder Chris Wedge, writer/director Carlos Saldanha clearly is one of Blue Sky Studios’ most treasured assets.

Jewel, center, feels right at home in the Amazon jungle; her mate Blu, left, is reasonably
secure, as long as he's got his cherished GPS device. Their music-loving daughter, Carla,
couldn't care less ... until she discovers that the jungle birds have their own wonderfully
vibrant approach to samba and bossa nova.
After sharing credit with Wedge on 2002’s Ice Age and 2005’s Robots, Saldanha soloed on the second Ice Age entry, shared credit once again on the third installment, and somehow found time for a couple of hilarious shorts featuring the acorn-challenged Scrat.

All the while, the Brazilian-born Saldanha must’ve been building up to his own pet project: 2011’s Rio, a thoroughly enchanting, bird’s-eye-view valentine to the city of Carnival, samba and a culture every bit as colorful as the film's eye-catching avian stars. In addition to being clever, witty and suspenseful — not to mention serving as an anchor for a gloriously celebratory soundtrack — that film’s script also worked in a mildly subversive, conservation-oriented subtext regarding the heinous black market trade in exotic birds and animals.

Saldanha kept all those plates spinning with the élan of a vaudeville pro. I was impressed three years ago, and equally captivated when I caught up with the film a second time last week, in anticipation of the subject at hand.

To cut to the chase, then, Rio 2 isn’t quite as fresh as its predecessor, but it's still quite entertaining. That said, I miss the greater involvement of Sergio Mendes. Although he returns once again as executive music producer, it’s to a noticeably lesser degree; nothing in this sequel matches the first film’s breathtaking paragliding scene, which took place against an updated rendition of the joyous Brasil ’66 hit, “Mas Que Nada.”

The songs and score in this sequel function more as they would in a stage musical — as story hooks to advance the plot — as opposed to augmenting the overall atmosphere with the rich, seductive sounds of samba and bossa nova. That’s an artistic modification, and not necessarily a bad one; I lament it only because there’s no shortage of animated musicals (I’m looking at you, Frozen), whereas Saldanha and Mendes were more creative and original with their use of songs in the first Rio.

A minor issue, granted, but it does affect this sequel’s tone.

Events pick up a bit after the first film’s conclusion, with our nerdy hero Blu (once again voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) enjoying domestic bliss with his mate, Jewel (Anne Hathaway) and their three offspring: Carla (Rachel Crow), Bia (Amandla Stenberg) and Tiago (Pierce Gagnon). They’re comfortably situated at the Rio de Janeiro animal sanctuary run by Blu’s BFF Linda (Leslie Mann) and Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro), newlyweds themselves, and partners in wildlife rescue and preservation.

While releasing one of their winged patients into the wild, Linda and Tulio spot a familiar cerulean feather: certain evidence that other blue macaws exist in this part of the Amazon. This is marvelous, breathtaking news, since Blu and Jewel were thought to be the last of their kind.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Captain America — The Winter Soldier: Another Marvel-ous hit!

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for intense action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.4.14

This one’s a lot more thought-provoking that I was expecting.

Confronting an enemy strong enough to catch his shield — and hurl it back, with deadly
force — Captain America (Chris Evans) and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson)
consider their rapidly dwindling options. Much as they hate to admit it, retreat might be
the better part of valor...
It’s safe to acknowledge, after so many rip-snorting predecessors involving so many characters — whether individually, or in groups — that Marvel Studios has the formula down to a science. Captain America’s second solo outing once more offers a welcome blend of familiar faces, superbly choreographed action scenes and just enough witty banter to prevent things from getting too grim.

Rest assured: No sophomore slump here.

And, yes, Marvel’s production team continues to navigate the all-essential fine line: offering insider nods to fans who’ve read these comic books for decades, while nonetheless ensuring that newcomers won’t be left out. That’s a remarkable feat by itself; still more impressive is the degree to which all of these films, this one included, continue to build on an ever-expanding tapestry that now includes a weekly TV series.

All well and good, and guaranteed to result in a crowd-pleasing popcorn flick.

But scripters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely make this film much more than a popcorn flick, thanks to a deeply unsettling plot that’s ripped from today’s paranoia-laden headlines. It’s a very clever touch, because Cap — Steve Rogers — is precisely the right character to confront this crisis.

It’s not easy, in our increasingly cynical times, to work with a character whose moral compass feels too good to be true. Putting such an individual on the big screen is even more difficult, demanding a perfect marriage of talent and material. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was just such an iconic good guy: a genuinely virtuous hero who could speak of “truth, justice and the American way” without prompting snickers from the audience.

Chris Evans makes Steve Rogers just as true-blue, with just the right balance between old-fashioned ethics and resourceful savvy. We must recall that he’s a man out of time: a World War II hero who — in his previous film — sacrificed himself for what he believed would be certain death, but instead wound up in suspended animation, revived decades later in our modern era.

Fish-out-of-water stories, when done correctly, can’t help being entertaining. Markus, McFeely and co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo do it correctly.