Friday, May 26, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales — Droll skullduggery

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for considerable fantasy violence and mild suggestive content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.26.17

Assuming Disney is telling the truth — that this truly is the final Pirates of the Caribbean entry — the franchise is leaving the stage on a strong note. 

Carina (Kaya Scodelario) tries to maintain her composure, as Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny
Depp, far left) hints at dire results if she refuses to answer his questions, while Marty
(Martin Klebba, center left) and Scrum (Stephen Graham) eagerly anticipate whatever
comes next.
Dead Men Tell No Tales suffers from a bit of bloat, but it’s by no means a showpiece of wretched excess akin to the previous two installments. Scripters Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio return to the better balanced blend of humor, chills and excitement that characterized the first film, way back in 2003. More crucially, co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg — who collaborated on 2012’s ocean-bound Kon-Tiki — maintain a brisk pace while (very important) keeping Johnny Depp’s self-indulgent mugging to a manageable degree.

This new film references earlier chapters while delivering a satisfying sense of closure, and — best of all — a well-conceived and truly terrifying villain, given a significant fright-factor by co-star Javier Bardem. Having set his own standard for disturbing evil in No Country for Old Men, Skyfall and The Counselor, here Bardem oozes wrathful malevolence at a level likely to terrify some of the younger viewers certain to drag their parents into the theater.

Although this film is laden with violence, Rønning and Sandberg (mostly) keep the carnage to a family-friendly level; there’s no gore and very little blood, with the slicing and dicing limited to quick sword thrusts. Plenty of nameless sailors, soldiers and pirates meet unhappy ends, but somehow the core characters — and the half dozen or so supporting players who’ve become familiar — always seem to duck at the right moment.

A prologue finds young Henry Turner (Lewis McGowan) rowing out to a certain spot in the moonlit ocean, where he times the reappearance of the ill-fated Flying Dutchman, the legendary ghost ship doomed to sail the seas forever. Unhappily, its crew includes Henry’s father, Will: a sad fate for the stalwart character Orlando Bloom played so well in the first three films.

Fear not, Henry tells his father; I’ll find Poseidon’s fabled magical trident, rumored to have the power to eradicate all ocean-bound curses.

Flash-forward a number of years, and Henry (now played by Brenton Thwaites) has become a ship’s mate with the British Royal Navy, stationed in the Caribbean colonial town of St. Martin. Despite his warning — Henry having read up on such things — his ship’s captain ventures into the dread Devil’s Triangle, and a fateful encounter with the imposing Silent Mary, the ghostly galleon commanded by the terrifying Capt. Salazar (Bardem) and his cadaverous crew.

Henry is the only survivor, having been spared by Salazar in order to “tell the tale.” Alas, back in St. Martin, Henry is branded a mutinous coward and scheduled to hang.

Baywatch: Hit the beach!

Baywatch (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for relentless profanity, crude sexual content and graphic nudity

By Derrick Bang

Well, color me surprised.

Far from the train wreck I anticipated, Baywatch is an unexpectedly entertaining take on the popular 1989-01 television series, which became must-see TV throughout the world — in syndication — after being dumped by NBC following a single season. (And boy, I’ll bet somebody’s head rolled after that mistake.)

As Mitch (Dwayne Johnson, left) and Matt (Zac Efron) grow increasingly suspicious of
the activity on a fancy yacht, they wonder if this might have something to do with the
nefarious development scheme that threatens their beloved Emerald Bay.
Mind you, we’re not talking classic cinema here. But director Seth Gordon and his half dozen credited writers keep their tongues firmly in cheek, and the result is an engaging blend of snarky comedy, rat-a-tat repartee, improbable action, bonding melodrama and — as was the case with the TV show — the ripped abs and barely zippered pulchritude of unapologetic beefcake and cheesecake.

As guilty pleasures come, this one’s shamelessly enticing.

Credit where due, Dwayne Johnson has a lot to do with this film’s success. It’s not merely a matter of his herculean feats of brawn, which we never tire of watching; he also knows how to toss a glib one-liner. Johnson has undeniable charisma and presence, and enough acting chops to navigate this sort of material. In a word, he’s fun ... and so is this film.

Johnson stars as veteran lifeguard Mitch Buchannon, top dog of the team at Emerald Bay: a well-recognized figure admired by all, who arrives early every morning to patrol his busy stretch of beach. He’s assisted by Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera), his regimented, by-the-book second in command; and CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach, a former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model), a free-spirited lifeguard who keeps the zipper low on her halter top, and has the uncanny ability to jog in slow motion (one of the film’s many running gags).

The summer season has just begun, which means it’s time for tryouts for three open spots on the Baywatch team. The hopefuls include the bookish, hyper-competent Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario); and the awkward, slightly pudgy but stubbornly determined Ronnie (Jon Bass), an Emerald Bay local taking his third stab at joining this elite squad.

Much to Mitch’s displeasure, he’s also forced to consider former Olympian Matt Brody (Zac Efron), a two-time gold medalist — in solo events — who blew off his teammates in the relay event. Matt has since devolved into a law-breaking, self-indulgent bad boy who still believes the world owes him a living, despite having become a social media joke.

Mitch doesn’t want anything to do with this arrogant loser, but his micro-managing boss (Rob Huebel) insists, believing that adding Matt to the team could be a public relations gold mine.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Everything, Everything: Adorable, adorable

Everything, Everything (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.19.17

Nicola Yoon’s fans will be over the moon.

They really couldn’t ask for more. Director Stella Meghie’s adaptation of Everything, Everything benefits from the savvy casting of two engaging stars — Amandla Stenberg and Nick Robinson — and a script (J. Mills Goodloe) that adheres faithfully to the 2015 young adult best-seller.

Once Olly (Nick Robinson) learns that Maddy (Amandla Stenberg) cannot ever leave her
house, he struggles for ways to help "imagine" her into the big, wide, outside world.
The film is swooningly romantic, start to finish, and guaranteed to send its target audience into dreamy euphoria.

The rest of us ... perhaps not.

Folks who enjoy both books and films have long known that some things work very well on the printed page, not so much on the big screen. Suspension of disbelief is easier, when we concoct the pictures in our minds; we gloss over inconvenient details likely to interfere with the unfolding narrative.

Having such a story translated into the real world of a motion picture brings such “problems” into the crisp focus of cinematographer Igor Jadue-Lillo’s lens, making them impossible to ignore. Contrivance becomes obvious, particularly since the story unfolds much faster, in a 96-minute film, than in a 336-page novel. Questions emerge; eyebrows lift; and — worst case — the spell is broken.

And, sadly, Meghie and Goodloe make that very likely to occur. They’re not sufficiently careful with niggly little details that Yoon’s readers will be happy to overlook, but which will prompt frowns from the uninitiated.

Suburban-dwelling Madeline Whittier (Stenberg), days shy of her 18th birthday, suffers from severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), popularly known as “bubble baby disease.” Since infancy, she has been confined to a hermetically sealed wing of the Los Angeles house that she shares with her mother, Pauline (Anika Noni Rose), a physician who cares for her around the clock.

Maddy cannot leave the house, or come in contact with anything that hasn’t been thoroughly sanitized. Her sole contact with the outer world is Carla (Ana de la Reguera), the nurse who visits each day while Pauline is at work, and Carla’s teenage daughter, Rosa (Danube R. Hermosillo). Everything they wear must be disinfected, each time they enter the house.

(Just in passing, Pauline must be an über-specialist who makes more money than God, because the state-of-the-art medical and physical enhancements to this home didn’t come cheap, and would be atrociously expensive to maintain. And that’s niggly detail No. 1.)

The Lovers: Not quite together

The Lovers (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang

Quite a few sharply perceptive observations about human nature are contained within this modest dramedy from writer/director Azazel Jacobs, which manages to be droll and forlorn in equal measure.

Too bad it’s so s-l-o-w.

At home, although relieved to be away from their respective lovers, Mary (Debra Winger)
and Michael (Tracy Letts) lack the energy — or willingness — to engage with each other.
The film opens cleverly, as Michael (Tracy Letts) has what we immediately sense is another in a symphony of tiffs with his hot-tempered lover, Lucy (Melora Walters); elsewhere, Mary (Debra Winger) works hard to allay the bubbling insecurity that afflicts her lover, Robert (Aidan Gillen). One scene later, Michael and Mary slide silently — resignedly — into bed next to each other, and we abruptly realize that they’re the married couple in this roundelay.

This scenario’s arch humor derives from the resignation with which Michael and Mary are conducting their lives, and our certainty that they’ve been doing so for years. We assume that this ennui results from their disenchantment with each other, but that’s not quite right.

No, it’s the exhaustion that results from maintaining the marital charade while essentially leading double lives elsewhere, and the utter chaos into which their lives have been plunged: friends long abandoned; lunches with co-workers forever put off; unpersuasive lies fabricated clumsily; extended work hours, just to keep up, due to the time-consuming nooners and afternoon assignations. It’s all exhausting.

And apparently not much fun. It would seem that one of the reasons to have an affair would be the excitement and novelty of the new: the enthusiasm with which the lover is greeted each day. But if that ever motivated Michael and/or Mary, it’s long past.

Michael has Lucy tagged as “Work” on his smart phone, and we get the joke: It’s not merely to conceal her identity from his wife, but a sly reference to the fact that this extra-marital relationship is work. A lot of work. It seems understandable self-defense when he lies to get out of an evening with the woman about whom he constantly lies to his wife.

Mary, if asked, undoubtedly would admit to being equally frustrated.

Alien: Covenant — Rather disappointing

Alien: Covenant (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for violence, gore, profanity, nudity and sexuality

By Derrick Bang

In space, no one can escape being surrounded by idiots.

The Alien franchise, just shy of four decades old, continues to crank merrily along, of late shepherded by founding director Ridley Scott. To some degree that’s a good thing, because his films always are handsomely mounted, crisply paced and graced with compelling ensemble casts.

Once it becomes obvious that something nasty is prowling on board their massive
colony ship, Daniels (Katherine Waterston) and her synthetic companion Walter
(Michael Fassbender) consider their options.
They’re also usually a great deal smarter than this newest installment.

Alien: Covenant suffers from the same bone-stupid plotting that made the recently released Life — a rather blatant Alien rip-off in its own right — such an infuriating experience. Nobody has a lick of sense, the various characters utterly ignoring chain of command and basic safety protocols, while bickering and squabbling like school kids. As I’ve noted in the past, if these numbskulls represent Humanity’s Finest, then we deserve to be massacred by outer space nasties.

This aggravating film’s script comes courtesy of Jack Paglen, Michael Green, John Logan and Dante Harper, who sacrifice plot logic on the altar of routine gore effects. You’ll find little genuine suspense here; all the alien attacks — whether by the now-familiar ovomorphs, facehuggers, chestbursters or adult xenomorphs — are telegraphed by maddeningly unhurried reveal shots.

Most of these encounters are by-the-book horror flick stuff: Somebody hears something, s-l-o-w-l-y turns around — or peers at something — and whammo! More blood on the screen.

This film offers neither the shock of the opening installment, nor the full-throttle energy of James Cameron’s immediate follow-up, 1986’s Aliens.

Most subsequent films were disappointments of one sort or another, until Scott re-ignited the franchise with 2012’s Prometheus. As a prequel to everything that had come before, the Jon Spaihts/Damon Lindelof script established an intriguing back story that explored the creation of the xenomorphs, the origins of mankind, and the space-faring race of giant “Engineers” who apparently seeded life throughout galaxies. Very high-falutin’ God stuff.

This new film takes place 10 years later — still roughly 20 years prior to the events in Alien (for those who pay attention to such things) — as the deep-space Earth colony ship Covenant makes its way to the distant planet Origae-6. The crew and 2,000 colonists are deep in hyper-sleep, the ship monitored solely by a synthetic android named Walter (Michael Fassbender) and an onboard computer dubbed Mother (voiced by Lorelei King, sounding very much like Sigourney Weaver). Once the journey is complete, the settlers hope to establish a new human outpost.

Friday, May 12, 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword — A cut below

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for fantasy action and violence, and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.12.17

British director Guy Ritchie has spent the last decade putting his breakneck, heavily stylized spin on pop-culture icons, with diminishing results.

His two takes on Sherlock Holmes were mostly fun, thanks to the sassy pairing of Robert Downey Jr. (Holmes) and Jude Law (Watson); the re-boot of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ... less so.

The mysterious Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) watches as Arthur (Charlie Hunnam)
contemplates the powerful sword Excalibur, which unleashes ghastly memories every
time he places both hands on its hilt.
Which brings us to this re-imagined Arthur Pendragon, Camelot and Excalibur: pretty much the only elements of traditional Arthurian legend that have survived in this senses-assaulting treatment by Ritchie and co-scripters David Dobkin, Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram. Their medieval adventure kicks off with a reasonably compelling first act, as the saga’s major players are introduced, but soon goes off the rails and ultimately succumbs to wretched excess during the overwrought finale.

This is King Arthur by way of Lord of the Rings: a magic-laden fantasy that ultimately overpowers its puny mortal characters. When opponents can send mountain-size elephants and coliseum-size serpents against each other, it’s impossible to establish an emotional connection with anything or anybody; Ritchie and his fellow scribes don’t exercise enough care to give us reasonable rules or consistency.

It’s all stuff and nonsense ... and, in Ritchie’s hands, hyper-accelerated and very loud stuff and nonsense.

The film opens with an explosive prologue, the malevolent wizard Mordred having lain waste to nearly all of England. Only well-fortified Camelot remains, but 300-foot siege elephants are poised to make short work of its walls. It’s an awesome sequence, orchestrated with breathtaking verisimilitude by visual effects supervisor Nick Davis, and ferociously paced by Ritchie and editor James Herbert.

All seems lost, but wait! The honorable King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) wields the mighty sword Excalibur, which instantaneously turns the tide. (Handy, that.)

Alas, in the aftermath, Uther fails to perceive the perfidy within; his brother Vortigern (Jude Law), secretly coveting the crown, unleashes his own vile magic. (Really, you’d think that Uther would have known that a brother given the name Vortigern couldn’t be anything but evil.)

The king and his wife perish, but not before sending their young son Arthur to safety in a boat: an oft-employed plot point that dates from Moses to Luke Skywalker, by way of Krypton’s Kal-El.

Snatched: Send it back

Snatched (2017) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity, crude humor and fleeting nudity

By Derrick Bang

It’s pretty sad when the star of a film is overwhelmed and out-funnied by her co-stars, and that’s definitely the case with Snatched.

On the run and lost in the Amazonian jungle, with a vengeful kidnapper on their trail,
Emily (Amy Schumer, left) and her mother Linda (Goldie Hawn) haven't the faintest idea
what to do next. Neither do this tawdry flick's director or writer.
Amy Schumer is by far the weakest link. Goldie Hawn, as her mother Linda, is funnier. Bashir Salahuddin, as a desk-bound U.S. State Department clerk, is much funnier. Joan Cusack, as a retired special ops agent, darn near steals the show ... and she doesn’t speak a word.

Mind you, Hawn, Salahuddin, Cusack and a few others are tiny bits of spice in very thin gruel. It’s hard to believe that Katie Dippold got paid for this miserable excuse for a script, particularly since it sounds like Schumer ad-libbed all of her dialog (scarcely an improvement). But, then, Dippold’s previous big-screen solo credit was 2013’s execrable The Heat, so clearly we shouldn’t have expected better.

Dippold seems to have become the go-to scripter for today’s two hottest foul-mouthed female comics, which makes sense; in terms of their big-screen personas, Schumer is basically a smuttier version of Melissa McCarthy (which is saying quite a lot). Schumer hasn’t yet met a situation that she couldn’t debase with a vulgar reference to sexual or bodily functions, and hey: If crude, tasteless potty humor is your cup of tea, you’re bound to have a good time with this flick.

Not that it features much else that could be considered entertainment value.

Schumer stars as Emily Middleton, a useless semi-adult introduced as she’s dumped by her musician boyfriend. Concerned less about her derailed love life and more about her two non-refundable tickets to an Ecuadorian tourist trap, Emily rattles unsuccessfully through her meager list of friends, and finally — as sloppy sixths or sevenths — persuades her mother to come along.

Such a trip is far outside Linda’s comfort zone, she being the type of stay-at-home, overly protective single mother whose idea of excitement is a pottery class. But Emily prevails, and the two unattached gals are off to paradise.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2: Just as awesome!

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action and violence, and mild profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.5.17

Overloading slapstick action and succumbing to an enhanced case of the “cutes” has doomed many a sequel; we need look no further than Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

After crash-landing on a forest planet when their ship is damaged by a pursuing attack
fleet, our heroes — from left, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the shackled Nebula (Karen
Gillan), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Rocket Raccoon — prepare
to face yet another threat.
Happily, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 doesn’t fall victim to the dread sophomore curse. Granted, the concept isn’t quite as fresh this time, and the film does indulge in some wretched excess — at a bloated 136 minutes, it also overstays its welcome a bit — but there’s no denying the fun factor. These rag-tag characters are a hoot, and they’re well played by a savvy ensemble cast.

Most crucially, writer/director James Gunn — reprising both responsibilities from the first film — capably weaves a massive tapestry that includes half a dozen heroes; ongoing interpersonal squabbles; several new associates; bad characters who turn good; a good character who turns bad; an enemy who threatens no less than the entire universe; and a couple of large-scale armadas out for revenge because, well, the Guardians have a tendency to annoy people.

All that said, Gunn hasn’t overlooked the key elements that made the first film so entertaining, particularly expatriate Earth guy Peter Quill’s fixation on the retro 1980s. Indeed, the title’s “Vol. 2” refers not only to this film’s sequel status, but to the second “awesome mix tape” that Quill found at the end of the group’s previous adventure, and the link it provides to his deceased and still mourned mother, since he uses his prized Walkman to hear the songs that meant so much to both of them.

But this new saga’s 1980s, Earth-bound prologue focuses not on Peter, but on an unexpectedly youthful Kurt Russell, wooing Meredith Quill (Laura Haddock) during a larkish country drive, as their car radio blasts the iconic Looking Glass hit, “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).”

This being a Marvel Universe story, Meredith seems untroubled by the notion of being courted by a “space man,” but perhaps she can be excused, given Russell’s charm. But wait: What’s that strange-looking shrub that he has planted in the woodsy glen bordering Meredith’s home town?

Flash-forward a quarter-century, and countless star systems away, as Peter (Chris Pratt) and his misfit comrades — the green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the brutish Drax (Dave Bautista) and Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) — struggle to fulfill their latest commission: to repel a massive, tentacled, space-faring, energy-eating monster that wishes to devour the precious anulax batteries that power the planet inhabited by the xenophobic, perfection-minded, gold-skinned Sovereigns.

And even though their queen, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), gets flirty with Peter — and he with her, much to Gamora’s disgust — that doesn’t save the group from her wrath, when she discovers that Rocket has swiped a few of said batteries.

Cue the first of several space-faring chases.