Friday, May 27, 2016

Alice Through the Looking Glass: Not such a much

Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016) • View trailer 
3 stars. Rated PG, for fantasy peril

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.27.16

This film conclusively demonstrates that it’s extremely difficult — if not impossible — to replicate Tim Burton’s signature brand of whimsy.

Mere moments after having traveled through the looking-glass, Alice (Mia Wasikowska)
clumsily triggers a crisis that "all the king's horses, and all the king's men" will have to
repair. Which is par for the course, for this film's dim-bulb Alice.
It’s not merely a matter of Burton’s directorial finesse; he’s also a shrewd judge of source material, and how it should be shaped. Either he carefully selects equally talented screenwriters, or he’s actively involved in how a script reaches its final draft; either way, the result — time and again — is weirdly droll, oddly endearing and invariably, if improbably, entertaining.

And — here’s the important part — meticulously structured, and consistent within its own fantasy universe.

None of which can be said about Alice Through the Looking Glass. Linda Woolverton’s script is a mess; her slapdash plot begs, borrows and steals from sources as varied as H.G. Wells, Frozen and the Back to the Future trilogy.

James Bobin’s direction is uninspired and lifeless. Somebody apparently thought he’d be right for the job, on the basis of his having helmed the two most recent Muppets movies. At the risk of stating the obvious, human characters need more directorial guidance than Muppets, who get most of their personality from their unseen “muppeteers.” Alice (Mia Wasikowska) and her various co-stars get very little guidance here.

Granted, this sequel to Burton’s Alice in Wonderland looks equally fabulous. Dan Hennah’s production design is opulent, imaginative and richly colorful: no surprise, as he’s a veteran of all three Hobbit chapters. Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood is a carryover from the first Alice, and her efforts here are equally creative, often amusing and sometimes flat-out beautiful; Alice’s kimono-style outfit is particularly fetching.

And, yes, the special effects are excellent, if overused ... and that’s part of the problem. As just one example, Bobin wastes an awful lot of screen footage with repeated sequences of Alice sailing through the “oceans of time,” and repetition does not make such journeys more interesting. Quite the opposite.

Love & Friendship: Witty and delightful

Love & Friendship (2016) • View trailer 
4 stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang

I wonder if late 18th century aristocrats actually were so unswervingly polite with each other, or whether that’s an affectation we’ve grown to expect from Jane Austen stories.

Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) has designs on the much younger Reginald
DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), a potential match that horrifies his sister and their parents.
Lady Susan couldn't care less about their objections, so the question remains: Can
anything save the poor lad from this black widow's clutches?
Whatever the actual truth, dramatic adaptations of Austen’s tales always are a treat, in great part because of the diabolically deceptive manner in which characters cut each other dead, with such cleverly scathing turns of phrase ... always delivered quietly, with a disarming smile that leaves the victim in stunned silence.

Director/scripter Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship has many such delectable moments, with plenty of tart dialog exchanged between the various good-hearted characters who do their best to survive encounters with the predatory schemer in their midst. The film is based on a lesser-known Austen work: the epistolary novella Lady Susan, likely written in the 1790s, before any of her published longer works, and then withheld. It remained unseen for half a century after her death, until a nephew published it in 1871.

Aside from its relative brevity, Lady Susan differs from Austen’s “classic” works — most notably Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma — in that its “heroine” is neither honorable nor admirable. Lady Susan Vernon is selfish, conniving and utterly ruthless, caring not a whit for the bruised or shattered feelings of those left in her wake.

In short, she’s a monster.

And yet, as played here to saucy, unapologetically haughty perfection by Kate Beckinsale, she’s utterly irresistible.

From a safe distance.

The saga begins as the recently widowed Lady Susan flees a scandal, choosing to “hide out” at Churchill, the estate of her in-laws, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his wife, Catherine DeCourcy Vernon (Emma Greenwell). Charles is magnanimous, by nature believing the best in everybody; Catherine is wary, recalling how her marriage was so vociferously opposed by Lady Susan.

Still, Lady Susan now appears chastened and friendly; Catherine cautiously hopes for the best.

She should have gone with her first instinct.

X-Men: Apocalypse — Thud and blunder

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and quite generously, for gratuitously fleeting profanity and distasteful, soul-crushing violence

By Derrick Bang

Enough, already.

Things were bad enough last summer, when Avengers: Age of Ultron gave us characters capable of re-shaping reality, along with a celestial scheme to return Earth to its Ice Age. Hollywood’s apparent need for superhero movies that forever increase the sense of scale — like a junkie craving ever-stronger fixes — was plain outta control.

When Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, center) is alerted to the presence of an ultra-
powerful mutant, he and his comrades — from left, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), Moira
Mactaggert (Rose Byrne), Alex Summers (Lucas Till) and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) —
try to determine how best to find this entity.
This newest X-Men entry is even worse, with a villain who literally can re-shape the planet according to whim: a level of power so off the chart that the very notion of this guy being stopped by anybody, let alone young and largely untested mutant heroes, is simply ludicrous.

What, I wonder, could be next? A baddie who’ll pull the Moon out of its orbit? Destroy Saturn and her rings? Extinguish our sun? Annihilate entire galaxies?

It’s impossible to care about any of this film’s sturm und drang, because its screenplay — credited to Simon Kinberg, Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris and director Bryan Singer — doesn’t spend enough time with character development. Worse yet, the little we do get is needlessly grim and mean-spirited: the same problem of tone that infected Batman V Superman a few months back.

The early X-Men films were entertaining by virtue of the wary ensemble dynamic that united such radically different characters into a team, and for the way that everybody’s strange and weird powers were blended into a cohesive fighting unit. That camaraderie is all but lost in this smash-fest, which instead revels in an arrogantly callous level of civilization-snuffing carnage that I’ve not seen since the distasteful 2012, which depicted mass death with all the gravitas of a pinball machine.

Singer’s tone is about the same here, with John Ottman’s bombastic score adding even more portentous fury. And just to seal that atmospheric deal, Ottman’s original themes are augmented, at (ahem) apocalyptic moments, by the equally dour second movement (“Allegretto”) of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

Not much fun to be had, all told, in this 143-minute endurance test.

A Bigger Splash: Only a ripple

A Bigger Splash (2015) • View trailer 
3 stars. Rated R, for graphic nudity, strong sexual content, frequent profanity and brief drug use

By Derrick Bang

A sun-dappled Mediterranean island, four attractive people, an uneasy romantic quadrangle linked in all sorts of directions ... the ingredients are ideal for a dreamy, sexually charged romp.

With this quartet — from left, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), Harry (Ralph Fiennes),
Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) — a walk to the beach is far
from blissful. The interpersonal tension is palpable, and it only gets worse with time.
At first blush, Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash delivers on that promise. We meet rock superstar Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) and documentary filmmaker Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts) as they enjoy a blissfully average day on the volcanic island of Pantelleria, off the coast of Sicily. They make passionate love in the pool of their luxurious vacation home, then — dressed only minimally — head for the warm delights of a beach that routinely attracts many of the island’s other residents.

She’s on an extended sabbatical, recovering from a throat injury that has left her unable to speak in more than a husky whisper. He works on projects as he can, but mostly tends to her every need. The bond is intense; they’re obviously devoted to each other.

Alas, their peaceful solitude is about to be interrupted. Nay, not just interrupted: rent asunder. Scripter David Kajganich (adapting a story by Alain Page) muddies these luxurious waters, and that’s a problem: The further we get into this self-indulgently long film, the less interesting and more tedious it becomes.

Along with just plain odd. After a lengthy set-up that is no more than relationship angst, Guadagnino and Kajganich abruptly switch gears, with a final act that’s procedural crime drama. Which is unexpected, to say the least.

And not really justified by what comes before.

Kajganich’s script is “inspired” by French filmmaker Jacques Deray’s 1969 “New Wave” classic La Piscine. That’s all well and good, but Deray had a much better handle on the undercurrent of illicit intent that fueled third-act events. Guadagnino and Kajganich are much too leisurely, their approach too vague, to justify their unexpected shift in tone.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Meddler: Portrait of an endearing pest

The Meddler (2015) • View trailer 
4 stars. Rated PG-13, and rather harshly, for brief drug content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.20.16

Marnie Minervini can solve any problem. Any problem.

And for those foolish enough to insist they’ve haven’t any problems, Marnie will help diagnose some previously overlooked “issue,” and then suggest the best possible course of action. She’s never wrong, and she’s the first person to admit as much.

During a dinner already laden with emotional angst, Marnie (Susan Saranon, left) watches
warily after her daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne), sees her ex enter the restaurant with his
new girlfriend.
In fairness, that opinion is shared by most folks on the receiving end of her largess — medical, spiritual or financial — who marvel at Marnie’s cheerful altruism, while assuming that she must be the world’s best, most caring mother.

Except that daughter Lori knows the truth, as do we: that Marnie is a nosy, relentlessly hovering, knows-no-boundaries nuisance who, despite her kind-hearted intentions, is a two-legged 24/7 nightmare.

She’s also the genius creation of actress-turned-writer/director Lorene Scafaria, who has concocted this character from the heart: from the complicated dynamic that resulted when, after her father died, her mother sold the family home in New Jersey and moved 3,000 miles to the West Coast, in order to be closer to her daughter.

“And,” Scafaria explains, in her film’s press notes, “I’ve been raising her in Los Angeles ever since.”

Granted, Scafaria has embellished a bit, but still: No mother could hope for a better, funnier, more even-handed portrait of a widow trying to work her way through grief, while blundering amid the walls freshly erected by a daughter struggling to process her frustration and sense of loss.

Nor could we, as viewers, request or expect anybody better than Susan Sarandon, when it came to depicting this character. Sarandon is a revelation, both on camera and while delivering Marnie’s stream-of-consciousness narration. I’d call the latter a clever means of illustrating just how exasperated Lori (Rose Byrne) gets, as the victim of her mother’s constant, intrusive nagging ... but the voice-overs are too hilarious to be viewed as irritating.

Mind you, it’s more accurate to call Sarandon’s delivery wincingly funny: As this film progresses, few things become scarier than watching Marnie plunge into a fresh crowd of strangers, knowing — with an odd blend of dread and amused anticipation — that she’s about to target fresh prey.

The Nice Guys: Abominable

The Nice Guys (2016) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for violence, sexuality, nudity, drug use and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang

A few minutes into this film, as we’re getting a sense of scruffy private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling), he attempts some late-night breaking and entering by wrapping his hand in a cloth, in order to punch out a glass door pane. He nonetheless slashes his wrist quite badly — the likely result, in real life — and we chuckle as he nearly faints at the sight of his own blood.

Meet Dumb and Dumber: Jackson Healey (Russell Crowe, left) and Holland March (Ryan
Gosling) find themselves enmeshed in a missing-persons case that leaves them baffled.
They should just let Holland's daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), take over; she's much
smarter than both of them combined.
Somewhat later, a 13-year-old girl gets thrown through a plate-glass window. Miraculously, she survives without even a scratch.

Interesting juxtaposition, donchathink?

It also begs the obvious question: Have we become so callous, as a society, that filmmakers assume we’ll be entertained by the sight of a helpless girl body-slammed through glass?

I’d like to think not, since the blame more properly can be directed at the repulsive schmuck who vomited up this tasteless excuse for big-screen popcorn thrills: director/co-scripter Shane Black.

Black established his Hollywood rep back in 1987, with the deservedly popular Lethal Weapon. Unfortunately, his subsequent action thrillers became dumber, noisier and appallingly mean-spirited, climaxing — at the time — with 1991’s indefensibly dreadful Last Boy Scout. Black unleashed one more bomb with 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight, and then wisely dropped out of sight for a decade.

When he resurfaced with 2005’s engaging Kiss Kiss Bang Bang — adapting a Brett Halliday mystery novel, and also making a decent directorial debut — Black appeared to have learned his lesson. The results also were good just a few years ago, when he helmed and co-scripted Iron Man 3.

Based on his newest film, though, Black was just building up enough cred to trick some studio — in this case, Warner Bros. — into letting him regress to his bad ol’ self.

So ... how tasteless is The Nice Guys?

It opens with the nauseating tableau of a horny adolescent boy running to the scene of a car crash, and then staring at the driver — a bloodied porn star, her voluminous breasts exposed — as she slowly dies. Black and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot turn us into unwilling voyeurs as well, by making sure those naked boobs are quite well displayed.

March’s constant companion is his 13-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice, who deserves so much better than this), who spends the entire film exposed to drugs, naked partygoers, porn flicks, appalling violence and a slew of very, very bad people. She also swears a lot, and employs an impressive string of vulgar sexual euphemisms. All of which are played as laugh lines.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Money Monster: A beastly good time

Money Monster (2016) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for brief sexual content, violence and frequent profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.13.16

Between this new film, The Wolf of Wall Street, Margin Call and The Big Short, one gets the impression that people have become deeply concerned about corporate malfeasance and Wall Street shenanigans.

Gee, I can’t imagine why.

The calm before the storm: Unaware that this day is about to become anything but average,
TV financial advice guru Lee Gates (George Clooney) and his producer, Patty Fenn (Julia
Roberts), discuss the talking points for their upcoming live broadcast.
Director Jodie Foster’s Money Monster may not be as imaginatively brilliant as last year’s The Big Short, but it’s just as entertaining and pointedly audacious. Scripters Alan DiFiore, Jim Kouf and Jamie Linden set up a hair-trigger premise and then develop it with an unlikely — but quite successful — blend of suspenseful twists and scathing humor.

Along the way, they also skewer the 1 percent who’ve absolutely, completely — and without awareness or shame — abandoned any sense of comradeship with the rest of us ordinary mooks.

This is only Foster’s fourth big-screen feature as director, after having cut her teeth with 1991’s poignant Little Man Tate; she obviously chooses her projects carefully. “Money Monster” proves that the double Oscar-winning actress has matured into an equally capable shot-caller. This is the sort of endeavor that could have collapsed any number of times, in less skilled hands; she unerringly navigates the ship past all dangerous shoals.

With thoughtful, infuriating, hilarious and even unexpectedly poignant results.

George Clooney stars as high-profile financial TV guru Lee Gates, who has built a viewership on the strength of sideshow antics more befitting the local news clowns who used to dole out weather predictions while dressed in funny outfits. We get an extended view of Gates’ smirky, hyperactive — and insultingly patronizing — shtick as he begins one of his financial analysis/advice segments on an average day, under the much calmer guidance of longtime producer Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts).

It ain’t pretty.

It’s also a not very exaggerated jab at what a serious topic such as money management has become, in our cynical, bread-and-circuses era of cable/satellite infotainment. Any semblance of capably researched public service has been abandoned — goodness, that would be boring — in favor of keeping the gullible masses distracted. And hey: If Gates misstates, exaggerates or even lies today, he won’t even think about amending or retracting tomorrow; he’ll simply proceed with an all-new set of encouraging prevarications and half-truths.

Just like dozens of shrill, malicious and defiantly deceitful radio show hosts.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Captain America: Civil War — The Marvel universe turns (sorta) serious

Captain America: Civil War (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for intense action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.6.16

Official title notwithstanding, truth in advertising suggests that this film should have been called The Avengers: Civil War.

Much as it pains him, Captain America (Chris Evans, second from right) and his like-minded
allies — from left, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Bucky
Barnes (Sebastian Stan) — realize that the only way to complete their mission, is to wade
through Iron Man and his comrades.
Although Steve Rogers’ Captain America (Chris Evans) endures a fair amount of angsty indecision in this rather busy chapter of the Marvel Universe saga, it’s nothing compared to the emotional battering suffered by poor Tony Stark’s Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). We’ve definitely left the larkish adventuring behind; although this mash-up is far more palatable than last month’s unpleasantly grim Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, the core storyline borrows from the same somber, real-world textbook.

Which is to say, superhero/supervillain battles — even those that conclude successfully — result in considerable collateral damage and civilian casualties. Where, then, does responsibility lie ... and does the end always justify the means? Should superheroes be subject to national or international oversight?

Popular comic book writer Mark Millar’s Civil War storyline, which occupied numerous Marvel titles during 2006 and ’07, was a direct response to U.S. government overreach with respect to post-9/11 citizen surveillance. (And some people still dismiss comics as being trivial?) The argument divided Marvel’s characters, with Iron Man leading a faction that supported a “Superhero Registration Act,” and Captain America and various followers refusing to submit to what they regarded as a dangerous police state.

Scripters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have modified this premise slightly, in keeping with events in recent Marvel movies.

This cinematic Civil War opens as Captain America and a few colleagues — Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson); Sam Wilson, the Falcon (Anthony Mackie); and Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) — track a terrorist to Lagos, Nigeria. It’s a crackerjack prologue, crisply choreographed by directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, and editors Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt.

But although our heroes successfully prevent a bio-weapon from being unleashed, Wanda’s powers unintentionally backfire, resulting in numerous civilian deaths. Back home, this proves one calamity too many for U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), who convenes an emergency meeting of the available Avengers, forcing them to watch video footage of the city-leveling events from earlier conflicts (lifted from both Avengers films and the previous Captain America entry).

If this feels similar to the way Batman V Superman opened, it’s only because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. (In fairness, Marvel’s comics struck first.)

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A Beautiful Planet: Astounding views of Spaceship Earth

A Beautiful Planet (2016) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang

I’m unlikely to make it into space myself, but Toni Myers’ IMAX films definitely are the next best thing.

No, this photo isn't rotated 90 degrees. NASA Commander Terry Virts "jogs" on a
treadmill onboard the International Space Station. Each crew member is required to
exercise at least two hours every day.
She already set the bar impressively high, with her 2010 giant-screen production of Hubble 3D: a jaw-dropping trip that dazzled from one awesome moment to the next. Her newest — A Beautiful Planet — is every bit as inspiring.

This 45-minute documentary, filmed entirely in space, divides its time between amazing Earthly vistas and the regimented routine of daily life on the International Space Station. The film isn’t scripted per se, although the loose narrative brackets the arrival and departure, after six months, of ISS astronauts Terry Virts, Anton Shkaplerov and Samantha Cristoforetti. The latter provides some of the off-camera commentary, her candid, unrehearsed views of station life blended with actress Jennifer Lawrence’s more formal (and frequently trenchant) narration.

The images throughout are stunning, with golly-gee-wow moments piling one atop the next; the overall sensation is breathtaking and rapturous, particularly with the dimensionality supplied by the 3D cinematography. Veteran IMAX cinematographer James Neihouse trained the astronauts to become their own camera operators, and they obviously learned their lessons well (although I’d have liked to see how the heck they maneuvered those bulky rigs within the ISS’ confined spaces and tight corners).

The 25-mile-wide eye of Typoon Maysak, as seen from the
International Space Station.
Some of the Earthly images are mere (!) visual spectacle, such as the perfect circular eye of a massive typhoon, seen from above, or the fireworks-style flickering of lightning strikes that dot a huge wave of thunderstorms. Other sights offer barbed political commentary, merely as a study in contrast: none more striking than the nighttime view of South Korea, ablaze with the lights of cities and civilization, and — by sober comparison — the sharp dividing line that delineates the border shared with North Korea, that entire country remaining almost entirely dark.

Deep-space telescopic images will tantalize science-fiction fans who obsess about the possibility of other beings Out There; our imaginations are stimulated by a planet dubbed Kepler-186F, with the Earth-like qualities that could support life. It’s only 490 light-years away: a mere stroll.