Friday, August 31, 2018

Juliet, Naked: A delightfully insightful dramedy

Juliet, Naked (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.31.18

British author/screenwriter Nick Hornby excels at romantic comedies with bite. He’s also one of the few novelists fortunate enough to have his books treated with respect, when they migrate to the big screen.

Annie (Rose Byrne) and Duncan (Chris O'Dowd) have lived together for 15 years, but
their "togetherness" feels habitual and artificial, rather than being laced with the warmth
that comes from mutual love and devotion.
That’s definitely true of Juliet, Naked, which joins a noteworthy list topped by High Fidelity and About a Boy. Hornby is equally gifted at adapting books by other authors, as evidenced by his accomplished handling of both An Education and Brooklyn. He has an uncanny ear for the fits and starts of relationship dynamics: not merely the way couples interact with each other, but also the manner in which they think and move.

Hornby also has an obvious love of music, and the way it informs key moments in our lives: a subtext readily apparent in Juliet, Naked (which feels, at times, like an Internet-era update of High Fidelity).

Director Jesse Peretz and his three scripters — Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor and Tamara Jenkins — have softened some of the rougher edges of Hornby’s novel, but the key narrative elements and underlying moral are firmly in place. The result is droll, wistful, occasionally pungent and often heartwarming.

And messy, the way relationships can be.

Sweet-natured Annie (Rose Byrne), generous of spirit, has never left the small British seaside community of Sandcliff, where she was born. (Filming actually took place in Broadstairs, Kent.) Although once a resort destination, the town has become as faded and unloved as the struggling museum she curates, having inherited that position from her late father.

Annie is equally stuck in a 15-year relationship with boyfriend Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a film studies professor at a nearby college. Their bond exists more by habit than actual affection; they’re certainly kind to each other, but passion is absent. So is any possibility of children, which Duncan dismissed long ago, and Annie gets little joy from “parenting” her irresponsible adult sister Ros (Lily Brazier), who has woeful taste in lovers.

Duncan’s most annoying habit, however, is his desire to be regarded as the world’s foremost expert on reclusive American singer/songwriter Tucker Crowe, who dropped out of sight years ago, at the height of his fame. To that end, Duncan spends all of his free time maintaining a web site dedicated to the mostly forgotten rocker, where he text-chats with fellow obsessives who scrutinize every line and word of Crowe’s songs, seeking “truth” and “meaning.”

It’s clear that Duncan has long rhapsodized for hours at a time about such minutia — most notably regarding the songs on Crowe’s magnum opus album, Juliet — with Annie as a trapped but tolerant listener. Shoot me now, her expression clearly indicates, but he’s oblivious.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Operation Finale: A taut, fact-based espionage drama

Operation Finale (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, violence, highly disturbing content and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang

The scariest monsters are the ones who look and act completely normal.

Say, like the kindly retired gentleman who lives next door, and often can be found in his garage, putting the finishing touches on a wood-working project. When it turns out that he’s a serial killer living under an alias, wanted in seven other states for the murders of at least 15 people, his neighbors shake their heads and — if interviewed for the local news — say “We had no idea.”

Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac, left) believes that he can manipulate Adolf Eichmann
(Ben Kingsley) into cooperating with the Mossad abduction team ... but they're likely
underestimating their captive's guile.
And then lie awake at night, eyes wide open, shivering over the possibility that he might have come in their window.

Ben Kingsley plays just such an individual in Operation Finale, and his performance is just as chilling — just as rationally, seductively evil — as Anthony Hopkins’ Dr. Hannibal Lecter, in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs.

The difference — which makes Kingsley’s performance even more frightening — is that he plays an actual historical figure: Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Holocaust.

Operation Finale is director Chris Weitz’s thoroughly absorbing depiction of the clandestine 1960 Mossad mission that tracked Eichmann to an industrial community in Buenos Aires, where he had been living under the alias “Ricardo Klement” since 1950. Because Argentina had a well-established history of refusing extradition requests for Nazi war criminals — which had enabled a sizable community of expat Nazis to continue espousing their genocidal Aryan philosophies — the decision was made to kidnap Eichmann, in order to bring him to trial in Israel.

Scripter Matthew Orton’s narrative focuses on Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), one of the eight operatives sent to snatch Eichmann, under the supervision of Mossad director Isser Harel (Lior Raz). Thanks to the Mossad’s 2012 decision to finally reveal details of the operation — and with access to Malkin’s 1990 memoir, Eichmann in My Hands — Orton’s script is able to depict details accurately, while also identifying many of the actual Israeli participants.

The result is a riveting espionage drama with the immediacy of a documentary, and the edge-of-the-seat suspense of a Hollywood thriller.

Isaac’s Peter, in his early 30s and already a veteran Mossad agent, is an outwardly affable individual who’s quick with a wry quip. But the ready smile on Peter’s face does not rise to his eyes, which often are dark with grief. He suffers frequent nightmares — we view them as flashbacks, each revealing a bit more than its predecessor — of precisely how his beloved sister Fruma and her three children perished during the Holocaust. Not knowing is almost worse than the loss itself.

He therefore protests, at least initially, when he’s asked to join the Argentinean assignment by good friend and fellow Mossad agent Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll). Peter would rather execute the man and be done with it; Harel and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (Simon Russell Beale) insist that putting Eichmann through a very public trial would be far, far better.

Peter therefore spends most of the film in a deeply troubled state, Isaac deftly conveying the turmoil that digs at the man’s soul. It’s a persuasive performance, given the degree to which Isaac is able to put us into Peter’s head, and allow us to understand his motivations. And fears.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Puzzle: The pieces fit beautifully

Puzzle (2018) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.24.18

Some actors are so accomplished — they slide so wholly into a role, inhabiting even the smallest nuance of personality — that they simply become the character.

Robert (Irrfan Khan), accustomed to puzzle partners who focus on distinct colors, can't
fathom the more instinctive, pattern-recognition method that Agnes (Kelly Macdonald)
Kelly Macdonald is just such a talent. She’d captivate even when doing something humdrum, like grocery shopping. Actually, that’s definitely true, since her character here doesmake an emotional symphony out of grocery shopping. Along with pretty much every other scene in director Marc Turtletaub’s clever, delicately assembled little drama.

The Scottish actress hit my radar with her strong supporting performances in 2001’s Gosford Park, the 2003 British miniseries State of Play and the 2005 British TV movie The Girl in the Café. Came to discover that I’d also seen her acting debut years earlier, in 1996’s Trainspotting. Had to go back and re-watch it. She was marvelous then, as well: right out of the gate.

She’s been quite busy ever since, likely well remembered — on this side of the pond — for her edge-of-the-seat supporting turn in 2007’s No Country for Old Men, and her supporting part in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.

Astonishingly, Puzzle is her first solid starring role. The 22-year wait has been worthwhile: She doesn’t disappoint.

Agnes (Macdonald) is introduced as she meticulously prepares her home for visitors and a birthday party. We immediately sense, from her air of concentration, that every detail needs to be just so. Turtletaub then cuts to the party in progress: people drinking, laughing, having a good time. Being a bit careless, as guests often are. 

Agnes is the fastidious, detail-oriented sort who gathers discarded glasses and dishes, and scoops dropped appetizers from the floor, before somebody can step on them.

Not until she brings in the beautifully decorated cake, and the crowd launches into a rendition of “Happy Birthday,” do we realize — as they all reach the third line — that it’s her birthday. And she has done all the work.

Agnes lives in Bridgeport, Conn., with her husband Louie (David Denman) and young adult sons Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and Gabe (Austin Abrams). The latter is forever accompanied by girlfriend Nicki (Liv Hewson), a mildly aggressive Buddhist vegan who seems attached to Gabe like a third arm.

Papillon: Doesn't fly quite as high as its predecessor

Papillon (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for strong bloody violence, nudity, profanity, dramatic intensity and sexual content

By Derrick Bang

Prison dramas, a cinematic staple since 1932’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, have long attracted big-name stars: Alec Guinness and William Holden (The Bridge Over the River Kwai,), Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke), Daniel Day-Lewis (In the Name of the Father) and Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman (Papillon).

Although initially worried that he might be making a deal with a different sort of devil,
Louis Dega (Rami Malek, left) agrees to accept protection from Henri "Papillon"
Charrière (Charlie Hunnam), in exchange for using some of his artfully concealed cash
to help finance a potential escape attempt.
More recent examples have increasingly depicted a level of brutality that never would have been possible during Hollywood’s golden age — 2014 Unbroken comes to mind — but, at their core, the best examples have endured because of their memorable character dynamics. That’s certainly true of the McQueen/Hoffman pairing in 1973’s Papillon, which remains a classic.

Mounting a remake of that film requires considerable chutzpah, since it’s akin to taking a fresh look at, say, Citizen Kane or Casablanca.

That said, director Michael Noer’s new handling of Papillon is a worthy effort, thanks mostly to the riveting performances from — and crackling chemistry between — stars Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek. While likely to remain in its 1973 predecessor’s shadow, Noer’s film deserves a chance to acquaint newcomers with this thoroughly gripping saga.

Aaron Guzilowski’s screenplay is adapted from the two memoirs — Papillon and Banco— written by Henri Charrière, the man who supposedly lived these events. (His nickname, “Papillon,” referred to the butterfly tattoo on his chest.) That disclaimer is more necessary today than it was in 1973, because ongoing research suggests that the events in Charrière’s books were endured by multiple individuals, and not just him alone … and that he also may not be the most reliable of narrators.

But the key details are undeniable: Charrière/Papillon was a Parisian safecracker and thief who ran afoul of an underworld gangster, and in return was framed for murder, and sentenced in 1931 to “life” in French Guiana’s notoriously harsh St-Laurent-du-Maroni prison camp: an isolated setting from which escape was “impossible.”

Since Charrière did not complete the sentence that was extended repeatedly due to his “bad behavior,” and given the existence of his two books — published in 1970 and ’73, respectively — we know immediately that “impossible” was an overstatement. Even so, the suspense derives from how things went down. The possibility that Charrière may have exaggerated details scarcely matters; Noer, Guzikowski and their two stars deliver a gripping, wincingly grim drama.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

BlacKkKlansman: provocatively brilliant

BlacKkKlansman (2018) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for dramatic intensity, highly disturbing and violent images, sexual candor, racial epithets and profanity

By Derrick Bang

This is another one for the jaw-dropping Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction file: an audacious adaptation of a real-world event that simply wouldn’t be believed, had it not actually happened.

Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, left) stares in astonishment at the KKK
membership card that his police colleague Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) has
just received in the mail, after he politely asked — during a phone conversation, in the guise
of a dedicated white racist — that KKK Grand Wizard David Duke expedite the request.
Granted, director Spike Lee and his co-scripting colleagues — Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott — have taken liberties here and there: changing some names, fabricating a few supporting characters, adjusting the time frame a bit. But the key details are just as they’re depicted in Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir of the same title, and the succinct elevator pitch can’t help raising eyebrows: the astonishing saga of how a black Colorado Springs police officer became a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan.

But that isn’t the only selling point of Lee’s big-screen adaptation. He has shrewdly shaped BlacKkKlansman to make what went down in the 1970s sound like a foreshadowing of what’s happening right now. Occasional lines of dialogue leap off the screen, as echoes of today’s headlines.

A casual conversation partway through this film, during which Stallworth (John David Washington) smugly discounts any possibility of KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) gaining traction on his desire to occupy the White House — Duke being described in contemptuous (but wholly accurate) terms that are equally relevant to the current racist Pretender-in-Chief — can’t help raising goose bumps.

At other times, in a neck-snapping shift of tone, Lee’s film is riotously hilarious … although our laughter tends to be nervous, at best.

That’s quite a balancing act: fascinating history, provocative social commentary, unexpected humor, and a terrifying glimpse of humanity at its worst. BlacKkKlansman triumphs on all those levels: alternating dynamic verve and swagger, with victory and heartbreak. It’s by far the most urgently relevant, shrewdly insightful and entertaining film of Lee’s remarkable career: quite an accomplishment, given his already impressive résumé.

It’s the early 1970s: Fresh-faced, Afro-coifed Stallworth becomes the first black officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department. It’s an early stab at racial integration that Chief Bridge (Robert John Burke) warns will test his new hire’s patience and resolve at every turn. And not just from an unknown percentage of local residents, but also from fellow cops such as the loutish Andy Landers (Frederick Weller, doing a great job at being teeth-grindingly loathsome).

Washington deftly establishes Stallworth’s character during this initial interview: calm, patient, insightful and — more than anything else — dignified. But he doesn’t wear the latter arrogantly, like a shield; resolve and a desire for mutual respect just sorta radiate from him. Yet when alone or briefly out of view, repressed frustration erupts like lava: quite jarring, the first time, given the Zen-like tranquility he has displayed up to that moment.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians: Rom-com by way of wretched excess

Crazy Rich Asians (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for suggestive content and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.17.18

Cross-cultural interpersonal friction has terrific potential in film comedies; the challenge is to ensure that the humor is warm and genuinely funny, without being demeaning or racist.

Rachel (Constance Wu, far right) is charmed when her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding)
introduces her to his grandmother, Ah Ma (Lisa Lu, center), while other members of
his wealthy and privileged family watch warily.
My Big, Fat Greek Wedding successfully walked that delicate line, back in 2002; director Jon M. Chu has navigated the same potentially treacherous waters with equal care, in his adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 best-seller, Crazy Rich Asians.

This is even more impressive, given Chu’s résumé, which up to now has focused on the Step Up dance franchise and bombastic popcorn flicks such as G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Now You See Me 2. I wouldn’t have thought him capable of the prudent handling required by this droll rom-com.

He and scripters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim also give generous screen time to an impressive roster of supporting characters, all of whom get numerous opportunities to shine. That reflects good directing and writing; far too many ensemble projects focus exclusively on the name stars, shamefully leaving equally (if not more) intriguing co-stars twisting in the wind.

Chiarelli and Lim have done an equally impressive job of compressing the novel’s multiple points of view — the story is told, in alternating chapters, by five key characters — into a single narrative. Chu then transformed the saga into a strongly visual experience, particularly with respect to travel maps and inventive displays of chat-by-text: clever touches that obviously couldn’t have been done in print.

All this said, I’m not sure Kwan’s fans will approve. Although the key elements of boorish behavior have been retained — Chu deftly blends hilarious bits with moments that are quite painful — the film is a much kinder, gentler handling of the core plot, which (in the novel) is far more vicious and brutal.

Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a professor of economics at New York University, is delighted when longtime boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) invites her to tag along for his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. Unfortunately, Nick has neglected to mention that he’s the scion of one of the country’s wealthiest and most powerful families; perhaps even worse, back home he’s a sought-after bachelor still regarded as “fair game” by the aristocratic young women who mingle in his family’s refined social circle.

All of whom regard lower-middle-class Rachel as an insignificant threat, to be quickly disposed of.

(In Nick’s defense, as he later explains, he found it refreshing that Rachel fell in love with him without knowing his privileged background ... and he simply never got around to ’fessing up.)

Mile 22: Breaks down

Mile 22 (2018) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for strong violence and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang

This flick certainly doesn’t lack ambition.

That’s no compliment. Director Peter Berg’s newest collaboration with star Mark Wahlberg isn’t anywhere near as successful as their other efforts — Patriots DayDeepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor — because they’re stuck with a script that is both overwrought and ludicrously over-plotted. Writers Lea Carpenter and Graham Roland obviously wanted to concoct a devious, twist-laden, politically hued action thriller, but they tried much, much too hard.

Having arranged to drive Noor (Iko Uwais, right) to a transport plane that'll fly him to the
safety of the United States, Silva (Mark Wahlberg) has no idea how dangerous the
22-mile trip is about to become.
The result is a mess, in terms of both narrative structure and execution. 

I’ve learned, over time, to be wary of films that begin in one of two ways: during a patient conference in a psychiatrist’s office; or during any sort of after-the-fact de-briefing. It’s a clumsy plot device that ruins suspense, often deceives viewers, and becomes increasingly frustrating — as in this case — when the director keeps interrupting the as-it’s-happening action, to cut back to the post-mortem.

No doubt Carpenter and Roland expected this gimmick to pique our curiosity: What is Wahlberg’s James Silva going on about? Doesn’t work that way. It’s just annoying.

Actually, Silva himself is annoying. Very annoying. Wahlberg apparently wanted a role with more than the stable, true-blue, baseball-and-apple-pie, real-life heroes he tackled in his earlier projects with Berg; James Silva is the result. He’s a capable assassin and senior field officer assigned to a CIA tactical command group known as Overwatch: the guy you definitely want handling a sensitive and/or dangerous operation.

He’s also an insufferable pain in the ass: a hyper-focused “spectrum baby” just this side of being bi-polar. He’s impatient, imperious, insubordinate, oblivious to social cues, and unwilling to suffer anybody gladly, whether fools or long-time colleagues. Wahlberg throws far too much twitch into the performance; five minutes into the film, it’s impossible to believe that Silva wouldn’t have been dismissed, decommissioned (with prejudice), jailed or flat-out terminated years ago.

But no: We’re expected to believe that Silva’s team — and his superiors — tolerate the rudeness, gruffness, nasty sarcasm and unpredictability because, y’know, he always gets results. Uh-huh.

We see an early example of this during a tense prologue, as Silva and his comrades infiltrate an American-based Russian safe house. The off-the-books goals: break up the operation, capture and identify the participants, and seize the intel. Things go violently awry, and Overwatch head Bishop (John Malkovich) — monitoring the operation via computer surveillance, from a distant command center — orders all the Russians killed.

“You’re making a mistake,” warns the final victim, as Silva coldly executes him.

Alpha: A bit of a mutt

Alpha (2018) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

This is a lovely notion for a story, but the execution leaves something to be desired.

Actually, I’m not certain it can be rendered successfully as a film. Director Albert Hughes and scripter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt certainly put heart and soul into their effort, but the result is slow, occasionally lifeless and frequently — distractingly — contrived.

Separated from their respective companions, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his unlikely
ally increasingly rely on each other, while attempting to survive prehistoric Europe's
dangerous environment.
At the risk of sounding like a killjoy, the very premise is flawed. While it’s romantic to consider the notion of a hyper-intelligent “first dog” that allowed itself to be fully domesticated some 20,000 years in our past, in truth it likely took many, many generations of (accidental?) wolf breeding before something approximating humanity’s best friend finally emerged.

But that wouldn’t be nearly as enticing during a studio story pitch.

Alpha belongs to the small but intriguing sub-genre of “protagonist(s) against the elements” films that are largely — or completely — bereft of dialogue. Its predecessors include 1981’s Quest for Fire, 1986’s adaptation of Clan of the Cave Bear and the pack’s stand-out classic, 1988’s The Bear. The latter’s director, Jean-Jacques Annaud — who also helmed Quest for Fire — has a strong artistic, visual and dramatic sense that keeps viewers breathlessly hooked.

Which Hughes can’t do, and no surprise; his résumé, working in tandem with brother Allen, focuses on grim, often socially conscious action thrillers such as Menace II SocietyDead PresidentsFrom Hell and The Book of Eli. He hasn’t the faintest idea how to handle something requiring the careful, delicate touch that Alpha demands. I kept lamenting how far superior this film would have been, in Annaud’s hands.

Hughes’ insecurity manifests immediately: He opens with a pointless flash-forward to one of the film’s most catastrophically suspenseful moments, freezes the climactic image, leaves us hanging (literally), then backs up to begin the story chronologically. One can’t help feeling that he worried about losing his audience, during a lengthy first act that (frankly) wastes a lot of time setting the stage.

Or perhaps that decision was thrust upon Hughes by nervous execs at Studio 8 (the production company) or Columbia Pictures (the distributor). Regardless, it’s an irritating cheat that bodes ill for the rest of the film.

We’re introduced to a small clan of Cro-Magnon tool-makers toward the end of Europe’s Mesolithic period. These are civilized people, with rituals, a language, primitive weapons, family hierarchies and an understanding that survival depends on working together, with everybody contributing. The tribe is led by Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), stern and strong, and proud that his 17-year-old son, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), has just come of age. 

For the first time, Keda will join the men on their dangerous trek to locate the massive herds of steppe bison that populate very distant grasslands: an annual hunt required to supply the food that will get the clan through the subsequent harsh winter.

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Meg: Waterlogged

The Meg (2018) • View trailer 
1.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, profanity, bloody violence and fleeting gore

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.10.18

Those with a fondness for 1960s TV shows will recall that director/producer Irwin Allen was responsible for several of the most laughably atrocious sci-fi shows ever unleashed on the small screen: Lost in SpaceLand of the Giants and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Having successfully "tagged" the megalodon with a homing device, and now able to track
it, our plucky monster hunters — from left, Mac (Cliff Curtis), Jonas (Jason Statham),
Jaxx (Ruby Rose), Suyin (Bingbing Li), Lori (Jessica McNamee), DJ (Page Kennedy)
and little Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai) — wonder what to do next.
This movie plays like a standard-issue Voyage episode with delusions of A-list grandeur: same ludicrous script; same wafer-thin, cardboard characters; same inane dialog; same jarringly inappropriate attempts at humor. We even get nods to key elements from the Irwin Allen playbook: a sleek underwater craft that looks strikingly like the Voyage flying sub; and a precocious kid who seems far more intelligent than most of the nearby adults.

(With no offense intended to Billy Mumy, Shuya Sophia Cai’s Meiying is a lot cuter than Will Robinson on his best day.)

And when director Jon Turteltaub and his three writers — Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber — aren’t mimicking Voyage, they’re ripping off Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Same underwater-whatzit-towing-a-floating-platform shot. Same ocean-bound jump scares. (I’m surprised nobody here said “We need a bigger boat.”)

The Meg is yet another entry in the recent wave of U.S./Asian co-productions, in this case Warner Bros. aligned with China’s Gravity Pictures. As was the case with Pacific Rim: Uprising and Skyscraper, such collaborations give us not the best of both cultures, but the worst. Enduring lazy, sloppy, lowest-common-denominator Hollywood junk is bad enough; watching it intertwined with equally vapid Chinese pop-culture elements is a special sort of torture.

This is the nadir of summertime popcorn adventure, bereft of even the faintest semblance of reasonable behavior by anything approaching a credible character. The Meg is a live-action cartoon, which I suppose can be enjoyed on that level, if viewers are willing to check expectations at the box office.

But don’t expect anything better than the Syfy Channel’s deservedly maligned Sharknado series. Much of Monday evening’s sold-out preview audience spent a lot of time unleashing eye-rolling snickers of contempt.

The Meg began life as a 1997 novel by American science-fiction author Steven Robert Alten, who built it into a franchise that has produced six more books as of this year’s Meg: Generations, with another expected in 2019. (The mind doth boggle.) This film’s script borrows very little aside from the first novel’s basic premise: that the Mariana Trench is much deeper than believed, because its “bottom” actually is a cold water layer that covers a hitherto undiscovered sub-ocean, populated by all manner of strange creatures.

Including a massive prehistoric shark known as a megalodon. (An actual creature, as far as we know; a model of megalodon jaws can be viewed at the American Museum of Natural History.)

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Dog Days: Should be buried in the back yard

Dog Days (2018) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG, for suggestive and mildly rude humor, and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

Rarely has an August release been better titled.

If you’ve ever wondered about a director’s impact on a film, look no further than this woeful misfire. 

Dax (Adam Pally) doesn't know a thing about looking out for a dog, when he's abruptly
dragooned into caring for his sister's pooch Charlie. Fortunately, they bond quickly over
junk food and bad movies.
From its first scene to the last, Dog Days reeks of directorial incompetence, because almost nobody in the sizable ensemble cast delivers a credible performance. Line readings are flat, wooden and unconvincing; the so-called acting is stiff, clumsy and insincere.

Potentially amusing bits of dialog land with the dismal thump of a proverbial lead balloon. Not that it matters much, because nothing is fresh about Elissa Matsueda and Erica Oyama’s uninspired script, which can be anticipated at every turn.

Marino and his writers apparently have tried to duplicate the parallel interlocked storylines and gentle romantic comedy vibe of Garry Marshall’s Valentine’s Day (2010) and New Year’s Eve (2011), with minimal results. The multiple character dynamics don’t work when the interactions are so forced and unnatural, and the interactive elements feel contrived.

Were it not for this film’s many four-legged co-stars — kudos to veteran animal trainer Mark Harden — Dog Days would be a total bust.

The two-legged players, in no particular order:

• Perky but rather stiff Channel 6 morning show newscaster Elizabeth (Nina Dobrev), recently jilted by her two-timing boyfriend, is forced to take on a co-host: former NFL star Jimmy Johnston (Tone Bell). She dislikes him on sight, but grudgingly bonds, over time, because their dogs — Sam and Brandy, respectively — get along so well.

• Radiant coffee shop barista Tara (Vanessa Hudgens) frets about her wasted college degree in marketing, while swooning over hunky veterinarian Dr. Mike (Michael Cassidy), and oblivious to how much socially awkward, rescue-dog agency owner Garrett (Jon Bass) wishes that she’d notice him. This dynamic shifts when Tara finds an abandoned Chihuahua she promptly dubs Gertrude.

• New parents Greg (Thomas Lennon) and Ruth (Jessica St. Clair), overstressed by the arrival of twins, foist their labradoodle Charlie onto her irresponsible brother Dax (Adam Pally), a musician forever seeking gigs for his band, who isn’t allowed to have dogs in his loft apartment building.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Christopher Robin: Endearing, but uneven

Christopher Robin (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.3.18

I’ve long regarded title credits as a strong indication of quality; a director who cares enough to insist upon clever, stylish or (in some manner) unusual credits, generally can be counted upon to give his film the same attention to detail.

Desperate to prevent passersby from realizing that Pooh is a stuffed bear who nonetheless
walks and talks, Christopher (Ewan McGregor) begs his childhood friend to "play taking
a nap."
In that respect, then, director Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin begins auspiciously. An extended prolog is lovingly and warmly animated from the E.H. Shepard illustrations in A.A. Milne’s original Winnie the Pooh books; the sequence also incorporates flipped pages laden with the correct type font. In all respects, it’s like we viewers jump into the book itself and become part of what follows, much in the manner of Jasper Fforde’s delightful Thursday Next novels.

This lengthy, period-appropriate introduction also establishes the firm bond between young Christopher Robin (Orton O’Brien) and his half-dozen plush animal friends, all seemingly hand-stitched, as if by some doting parent. They’ve organized a party in the Hundred Acre Wood, but the occasion is somber: Christopher Robin is heading off to boarding school. The mood is pure “Puff, the Magic Dragon.”

These sweetly animated characters are voiced sublimely, their note-perfect dialog — here, and throughout the entire film — impeccably crafted to match Milne’s blend of innocence and gentle playfulness (with numerous quotes lifted directly from the page). We can’t help being both charmed and saddened; the sweet sorrow of this impending parting is almost more than can be withstood.

Then the movie proper kicks in, and the mood is ... well, badly compromised, if not completely shattered.

The script — credited, with eyebrow-raising concern, to five different hands — is a patchwork mess stitched together with far less care than that given to its animated stars. The plot is a clumsy mash-up of Steven Spielberg’s Hook and Disney’s Mary Poppins — both centering around an adult who has lost track of his childhood sense of wonder — blended with numerous un-subtle nods to the three Disney Winnie the Pooh cartoon shorts produced between 1966 and ’74.

To make matters even worse, this film’s (mostly) soothing tone often is marred by the destructive slapstick sequences that infected so many of Disney’s insufferably stupid late 1960s and early ’70s live-action comedies. The sudden shift in tone can cause whiplash.

In a nutshell, these characters — human and otherwise — are far better than the derivative, wafer-thin and disappointing story into which they’ve been dumped.