Friday, May 29, 2015

San Andreas: No major faults here

San Andreas (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, constant mayhem and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.29.15

I had my doubts, but director Brad Peyton pulled it off: San Andreas deserves to become summer’s second surprise movie hit (following the utterly delightful Pitch Perfect 2).

The earthquakes and aftershocks are bad enough, but nobody is ready for the subsequent
tsunami. All the trouble our protagonists — from left, Ollie (Art Parkinson), Blake (Alexandra
Daddario) and Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) — have taken, to avoid tall buildings ... and now
they must try to seek higher ground.
Peyton had help, starting with a reasonably intelligent script from Carlton Cuse, Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore — which, thankfully, eschews sudsy melodrama — along with a solid cast toplined by Dwayne Johnson.

Absolutely the guy I’d want by my side, during any sort of crisis.

But this isn’t a one-man show. Peyton draws equally persuasive performances from co-stars Paul Giamatti, Carla Gugino and Alexandra Daddario, and (slightly) lesser players Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson comport themselves equally well.

More crucially, Peyton is to be congratulated for successfully walking the razor’s-edge fine line of tone: a very difficult task in this particular genre.

The original Airport and Poseidon Adventure may have played their crisis-laden dramas straight, when they kick-started the whole “disasterpiece” franchise four decades ago, but things had turned eye-rollingly silly by the time Rollercoaster, The Swarm and When Time Ran Out came along. Fred MacMurray and Olivia de Havilland fleeing killer bees? Puh-leaze. Rarely have so many former A-list stars been subjected to so much puerile nonsense.

But the genre’s more recent revival, with a greater reliance on computer-generated calamity, offered an entirely different set of pitfalls. With soulless filmmakers eager to showcase all the catastrophe that money could throw onto a screen, the human element became second to gleefully orchestrated death and destruction ... much as slasher films earned their rep not for how plucky heroes survived, but instead for the way helpless victims got snuffed.

This tasteless sensibility reached its nadir a few years ago with director Roland Emmerich’s 2012, which played the end of the world as a spectator sport that invited giggles, as viewers watched untold millions perish in (sometimes) deliberately amusing ways. Truly reprehensible.

Peyton & Co. wisely avoided that blunder. While the earthquake-generated events here are undeniably grim — and rather close to home for those of us living in California, particularly in the wake of the recent tragedy in Nepal — cinematographer Steve Yedlin never lingers on the untold loss of life, nor does the film pander to baser instincts. Peyton and his writers simply concentrate on telling a saga of crisis, and the resourceful individuals who overcome one setback after another.

Besides which, you’ve gotta love a story that treats engineers with such respect, and makes champions of humble Caltech undergraduates. Not to mention getting not just one, but two impressively capable female characters in the bargain.

And hey ... if the heroics eventually become improbable, that’s the nature of the game. This film earns plenty of good will before unleashing its physics-defying stunts. So yes ... we’re treated to the world’s most resilient helicopter, quickly followed by the world’s sturdiest truck, and — without question — the world’s most amazing speedboat.

Go with it.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Spike Island: Sweet rock 'n' roll

Spike Island (2012) • View trailer 
Four stars. Not rated, with profanity, sensuality and plenty of recreational drug use

By Derrick Bang

Director Mat Whitecross’ exhilarating indie, released three years ago but only now making its way on our side of the Atlantic, is a valentine to music fans of all ages, but particularly for those of us who — as teenagers — fell madly, passionately and hopelessly in love with One Special Album that ruled our lives, awake or asleep.

With the concert grounds tantalizingly close — but still unapproachable, thanks to high
fences and numerous guards — the situation seems hopeless for, from left, Little Gaz
(Adam Long), Zippy (Jordan Murphy), Tits (Elliot Tittensor) and Sally (Emilia Clarke).
It became a personal soundtrack to eating, studying and falling in love: the songs that we discussed and dissected endlessly and enthusiastically to like-minded friends.

Whitecross and scripter Chris Coghill haven’t merely depicted the obsessive zeal of such devotion; their film is constructed with an inventive, vibrant bounce that spills youthful bliss from every frame. In that context, Spike Island belongs in the company of like-minded, music-laden predecessors such as The Commitments, That Thing You Do and, more recently, Begin Again.

All that said, American viewers are warned to anticipate accents so thick that subtitles wouldn’t have been amiss. I know, intellectually, that all these characters are speaking English in this British production, but the working-class Manchester accent is thick enough to give the most impenetrable Irish brogue a run for its money.

Which is to say, much as I enjoyed this first exposure, the eventual home-viewing experience will be even more satisfying, when I can turn on the DVD’s closed captions.

Coghill’s story, set in Manchester during the spring of 1990, follows five rough ’n’ tumble teenage lads who — like many of their fellow “Madchesterians” — have succumbed to the eponymous debut album by The Stone Roses, released the summer before and still ruling the charts. Beloved in great part because the band members were Manchester natives themselves, the album touched a nerve in rock and punk fans already marginalized by recession, mass unemployment, class wars and the recent poll tax riots.

Rock-inflected movements come in many sizes. Although lacking the massive historical shift signaled by the 1960s British invasion, The Stone Roses definitely fueled a Manchester-based mini-revolution that brought a shimmering, jangling illusion of hope to a subset of Briton that felt helpless and beaten down.

Mind you, at first blush this story’s young heroes — Gary “Tits” Titchfield (Elliot Tittensor), Darren “Dodge” Howard (Nico Mirallegro), Chris “Zippy” Weeks (Jordan Murphy), “Little Gaz” Duffy (Adam Long) and “Penfold” Andrew Peach (Oliver Heald) — seem little more than hooligans. They’re introduced while laying waste to their school with multiple cans of paint: a shrill anarchic act inspired by The Stone Roses themselves. (Check the LP cover of the aforementioned album.)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Tomorrowland: An unsatisfying ride

Tomorrowland (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG, and a bit generously, for violence, dramatic intensity and sci-fi action

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.22.15

Nobody likes a lecture.

Disney’s Tomorrowland displays enough gee-whiz creativity and high-tech gloss for the next half-dozen films — and that’s a problem all by itself — but all the razzle-dazzle eventually boils down to A Message. A heartfelt and deeply necessary message, to be sure, but a disappointing anticlimax nonetheless.

Having penetrated the inner sanctum carefully guarded by the reclusive Frank Walker
(George Clooney), Casey (Britt Robertson) can't help wondering why he spends so much
time watching so many monitors.
I was reminded of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, with its mind-blowing dreams within dreams, all eventually leading to the inconsequential equivalent of Orson Welles’ Rosebud.

But whereas Citizen Kane built to that moment with well-established irony, Inception and Tomorrowland merely leave us with a vague sense of having been cheated. As in, Seriously? That’s what we’ve been building to?

With respect to the environmental undercurrent running throughout this new Disney release, 1971’s Silent Running made the same point far more profoundly — and effectively — without being so insufferably didactic.

But while the concluding let-down is indeed unsatisfying, Tomorrowland has a more glaring problem: a ludicrously overcooked script by too many chefs. Scripters Damon Lindelof, Jeff Jensen and Brad Bird (the latter also directing) can’t decide what type of movie they’re making — action epic, sci-fi comedy or cautionary tale — and subsequently fail at all three.

To be sure, the result is awesome to look at, with marvels a-plenty on the screen. But it’s almost as if Bird hopes to overwhelm us with the eye-popping imagery, as a means of concealing the story’s deficiencies and glaring plot holes. This is one of those scripts that doesn’t hold together during post-mortem scrutiny; you’ll exit the theater exchanging comments that begin with “Wait a minute...” and “But what about...” and, mostly, “Why did that happen?”

Why, indeed. Rarely has a surprise villain’s motive seemed so impenetrable, muddled and pointless.

All of which represents a heartbreaking result from the talented Bird, who until now could do no wrong. Few directors could boast of a consecutive record as strong as The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. But not even he could stitch all these disparate fabric squares into a pleasing quilt.

Such a shame.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd: Frequently maddening

Far from the Madding Crowd (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, and needlessly, for mild sensuality and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.15.15

This has been obvious for (literally) centuries, but it bears repeating: Thomas Hardy was no Jane Austen.

Although Bathsheba (Cary Mulligan) knows that Gabriel (Matthias Schoenaerts) loves her,
she's too independent and stubborn to acknowledge that she quite likely feels the same.
Sadly, such innocence in matters of the heart is about to make her vulnerable to another
potential suitor: one who's far less honorable.
Although Far from the Madding Crowd — his fourth novel, and the one that brought him fame — paints a lovingly descriptive portrait of the rolling, rugged countryside of 19th century Southwest England, with the inflexible class divide that we’ve come to expect from the period, Hardy fails utterly in his novel’s most important task: the creation of a sympathetic protagonist.

Director Thomas Vinterberg and star Carey Mulligan do their very best, in this newest film adaptation of Hardy’s novel. In appearance, spirit and resourcefulness, her handling of Bathsheba Everdene positively sparkles: an effervescent young woman who’d be the center of attention at any social gathering, warding off the advances of countless suitors.

Mulligan is adorable. Her radiant smile is granted additional intensity by a mischievous glint in her eyes, and her nose crinkles in a particularly endearing way when that smile blossoms into a delightful grin that hints at the promise of ... something.

But that’s the problem: Bathsheba is all coy suggestion, with no delivery. Her behavior is to be excused, in Hardy’s view, by her innocence; the parentless upbringing that fueled her pride and grit — and most particularly a determination to prove that a woman can go it alone, despite the era’s disparagement of single women — also left her clueless in kinder social graces such as diplomacy, tact and sensitivity.

By surface appearance, we can’t help admiring Bathsheba. By her actions ... well, that’s another matter indeed.

Part of the problem, of course, is the widening gap that separates our 21st century sensibilities from this novel’s 1874 publication date, with all that entailed. During the past 50 years in particular — since this book’s best-known 1967 adaptation by director John Schlesinger, with Julie Christie handling the title role — we’ve grown less tolerant of a 19th century male author’s clumsy attempt at a female protagonist, and far more impressed by Austen’s progressive 18th century creation of (to us) much more interesting heroines.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Hot Pursuit: Stone cold

Hot Pursuit (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, sexual candor, profanity and drug references

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.1.15

In the space of one short month at the end of last year, Reese Witherspoon starred in an inspirational drama about Sudanese refugees settling in Missouri (The Good Lie); collected a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for her persuasive portrayal of solo hiker Cheryl Strayed (Wild); and delivered a droll supporting performance as a snarky deputy district attorney in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s admittedly weird — but oddly compelling — handling of a notorious Thomas Pynchon novel (Inherent Vice).

Worried about their ability to remain on the down-low, given that every TV newscast has
been leading with their photographs, Daniella (Sofía Vergara, left) nonetheless assures
Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) that this particular sales clerk won't be staring at her face.
So ... what does Reese — a previous Oscar winner, let us not forget, for her memorable turn as June Carter, in Walk the Line — do for a follow-up?

Something rilly, rilly nifty, right?

If only.

I’ve no idea why high-caliber talents such as Witherspoon attach themselves to low-rent junk such as Hot Pursuit. There’s no way David Feeney and John Quaintance’s misbegotten script ever could have shown promise. Nor has it been dragged to life by director Anne Fletcher, which merely proves that the pudding was rancid to begin with; she did far better with previous comedies such as 27 Dresses, The Guilt Trip and most particularly The Proposal.

Fletcher clearly knows funny, and Witherspoon can do funny. So can co-star Sofía Vergara, as she has quite ably demonstrated during six seasons (and counting) of television’s Modern Family.

No, the blame here belongs solely to the numb-nuts script, which plays like a bottom-of-the-barrel television sitcom episode. No surprise there, since Feeney is a veteran of slapstick (but successful) TV work such as New Girl, According to Jim and 2 Broke Girls, while Quaintance has struggled with less successful rom-coms such as Perfect Couples, Whitney and Ben and Kate.

So if this big-screen gal-pal comedy looks, walks and quacks like a TV duck, there’s ample reason.

Mind you, I’ve no objection per se to dumb and aggressively loud TV comedies; I’ve laughed plenty hard during random episodes of New Girl. (2 Broke Girls ... not so much.) But there comes a point when it too frequently feels as if the stars in such material are trying to wring laughter from predictably stupid plots and dead-on-arrival one-liners.

That’s most definitely the case with Hot Pursuit.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron — Upping the ante

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for intense action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.1.15

Fans will be delighted, and it’s certain to make a fortune.

Writer/director Joss Whedon once again delivers a crowd-pleasing blend of thrills and snarky humor, along with enough quiet, character-driven moments to remind us that — in some cases, at least — we’re dealing with (to quote the Hulk) “puny humans” who, valiant spirit notwithstanding, wearily realize that they’re way outta their league.

During a welcome break from the fury of battle, the off-duty Avengers — from left, Bruce
Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.),
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) — try to determine what their
new robot adversary is up to.
And that, in a nutshell, is a fairly blatant problem with this second Marvel superhero mash-up. Avengers: Age of Ultron may have sidestepped the usual sophomore slump pitfalls, because Whedon is a highly skilled purveyor of action-oriented entertainment; this definitely isn’t a case of same old/same old.

But the sense of scale has climbed off the chart, and that is troublesome. By the time we reach this saga’s chaotic third act, we’re dealing with three new characters who appear able to level continents, not to mention an attack by hundreds of killer robots, urban renewal on a jaw-dropping scale, and a celestial, physics-defying scheme to plunge our entire planet into a new Ice Age.

It’s the familiar Superman problem, writ even larger: How do you concoct a threat sufficiently dire to give an invulnerable hero more than a moment’s pause? And once a threat of even greater magnitude does loom on the horizon, how can our champions endure?

Only by finding an even stronger ally, of course. And so forth, and so forth. Until we have to throw up our hands, admit that things have gotten totally silly, and go with the flow.

It’s a testament to Whedon’s considerable talent, that we are willing to go with that flow.

Credit his insistence on narrative subtext, not to mention note-perfect casting and performances that we’ve grown to love. Robert Downey Jr. remains the epitome of arrogant, condescending genius, although — as we’ve seen, in Iron Man’s most recent solocinematic outing — the emotional cracks are starting to show. Even so, he remains the master of the snide put-down, and his “public face” as Tony Stark has become difficult to endure.

In great contrast, Chris Evans stands tall as the icon of selfless virtue: a retro goodie-two-shoes whose Captain America would be jeered as a hopelessly old-fashioned throwback to so-called gentler times ... were it not for the utter sincerity with which Evans delivers even the corniest lines. We can’t help but smile, early on, when Captain American chides Iron Man about “language.” It’s a cute line, and it sets up an amusing running gag.

Chris Hemsworth radiates the regal bearing we’d expect of a Norse god, and his Thor similarly gets away with stilted “high speech” because Hemsworth retains the steely eyed gravity — and Shakespearean authority — that director Kenneth Branagh established in his first solo outing.