Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Marley & Me: Kinda good dog

Marley & Me (2008) • View trailer for Marley & Me
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for unflinching encounters with doggy doo
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.31.08
Buy DVD: Marley & Me • Buy Blu-Ray: Marley & Me (Three-Disc Bad Dog Edition) [Blu-ray]

"A person can learn a lot from a dog, even a loopy one like ours. Marley taught me about living each day with unbridled exuberance and joy, about seizing the moment and following your heart. He taught me to appreciate the simple things: a walk in the woods, a fresh snowfall, a nap in a shaft of winter sunlight. And as he grew old and achy, he taught me about optimism in the face of adversity. Mostly, he taught me about friendship and selflessness and, above all else, unwavering loyalty."
Among his many eccentricities, Marley turns out to be terrified of
thunderstorms ... a rather frequent phenomenon in Florida. The Grogans
discover this the hard way, after leaving their young pooch on his own in the
garage for a few hours. They return to a scene of destruction that one would
not have thought possible, from a single dog.

Newspaper columnist Josh Grogan wrote Marley & Me as a tribute to a dog cheerfully described as the worst dog in the world ... but also treasured as the best friend he ever had.

The best-selling memoir struck a familiar chord with readers across the country and even around the world, many of whom have watched warily as director David Frankel's film adaptation took shape and made its way to the big screen. While perhaps not as numerous as Harry Potter or Star Trek fans, dog lovers are no less devoted; one crosses them at one's own peril.

The casting announcement was greeted with skepticism. Although Jennifer Aniston is a reasonable choice as Grogan's wife, Jenny, Owen Wilson is more problematic as Josh. Wilson's track record has been uneven, to say the least; that aside, he's known for eccentric, goofball roles that he rarely takes seriously.

And Wilson's involvement suggested the worst of possibilities: that Marley's demolition-derby behavior, in order to better mesh with his human co-star's manner, might be escalated to the wincing absurdities of Disney's worst 1970s slapstick animal comedies.

Happily, this adaptation of Marley & Me does not fall into that trap.

Frankel, who helmed the adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada, clearly understands the dividing line between enough and too much. Although Marley's destructive tendencies certainly occupy much of Grogan's book, they are by no means the meat of the story, which concerns Josh and Jenny as much as it does their canine companion.

Frankel follows that lead; Marley is one of three major characters in this film, not its overly conspicuous prime focus. Frankel also maintains the proper balance of gentle romantic comedy and canine hijinks, and scripters Scott Frank and Don Roos retain all the key events — happy, sad and funny — that made Grogan's book such a delightful read.

Even Wilson clearly strives to step into his character's earnest shoes, although that does raise a fresh problem: He lacks the acting chops for a story presented even this breezily. Although playing a real-world guy, Wilson approaches every scene with the same slightly dazed expression, as if he's waiting for some muse to show him how to properly compose his face.

And the notion of Wilson as a serious journalist? Don't even get me started.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Valkyrie: Oh, so close...

Valkyrie (2008) • View trailer for Valkyrie
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.26.08
Buy DVD: Valkyrie • Buy Blu-Ray: Valkyrie [Blu-ray]

After numerous delays, amid speculation that the picture was snake-bit, and with his artistic credibility on the line — not to mention the fate of his still-fresh ownership of United Artists — Tom Cruise finally has gotten Valkyrie into theaters.
Soon after recovering from injuries sustained in North Africa, and because he
has made no secret of his distaste for the direction Hitler's war has taken, Col.
Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise, standing left) is approached by Maj. Gen.
Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh, standing right) and asked to join
an ambitious plot to assassinate Der Fuehrer.

The good news is that the film is a crackling drama, its fascinating depiction of dissension within Hitler's elite a reassuring reminder that numerous high-ranking German politicians and military officers were quite unhappy with the madman leading their country.

The bad news — for Cruise, anyway — is that he's completely miscast in this project, his all-American good looks and blatantly American accent at odds with the German officer he's playing. More critically, he's blown off the screen by a veritable wealth of supporting players, many of them British, all of them vastly superior actors.

Despite being the center of these events, Cruise's Col. Claus von Stauffenberg is the least interesting — and most shallowly realized — character in the film.

All stories of this nature, where suspense must be built from actual historical events with known outcomes, succeed or fail on the basis of how deeply involved we get with either the characters or the situation. Despite knowing (for example) that the astronauts of Apollo 13 made it back safely, we nonetheless were at the edge of our chairs during director Ron Howard's absorbing film.

In terms of political thrillers, the benchmark was set with 1973's Day of the Jackal, director Fred Zinnemann's brilliant adaptation of Frederick Forsyth's dynamite best-seller, which detailed a plot to assassinate Charles De Gaulle. Notwithstanding the obvious fact that De Gaulle never was assassinated, we actually began to worry, as professional killer Edward Fox went through all his meticulous preparations, that we might have misremembered history.

The scheme, it appeared, couldn't possibly go wrong!

Valkyrie takes a somewhat different approach in its depiction of the so-called "July 20th Plot" to kill Hitler and replace the entire Nazi government. As this screenplay — credited to Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander — begins in 1943 and builds to its climax during the summer of 1944, it's almost immediately obvious that well-laid plans will go awry, and that these dedicated and well-meaning conspirators will be caught; the only questions are when, and how.

This almost inevitable failure is even referenced by one particularly mordant line of dialogue: "It's a military operation. Of course something will go wrong."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Seven Pounds: Heavy lifting

Seven Pounds (2008) • View trailer for Seven Pounds
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for sensuality and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.24.08
Buy DVD: Seven Pounds • Buy Blu-Ray: Seven Pounds [Blu-ray]

What price penance?

Soulless monsters walk away from their self-inflicted carnage without a single backward glance, apparently believing themselves above the weaknesses of guilt or morality.
Emily (Rosario Dawson) grows ever more curious about Ben (Will Smith), the
solicitous stranger who has become such an important part of her life, but he
refuses to answer personal questions. This emotional wall becomes increasingly
troublesome, as do the great lengths to which the filmmakers go to preserve
the "big mystery" at the heart of this film.

Not so Ben Thomas, who hemorrhages guilt to a degree that seems life-threatening. Even without knowing its cause, we wonder how any human being can endure the weight of so much anguish.

Seven Pounds finds star Will Smith once again in a more serious mode, shooting for the tragic arcs he has carried now for three consecutive holiday seasons, starting with The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) and I Am Legend (2007). Indeed, this new film re-unites Smith with director Gabriele Muccino, with whom the impressively bankable star made Happyness.

Without question, Smith is the Teflon box-office champ; no matter how unusual, downbeat or just plain dreadful the project, he still comes out smelling like a rose ... and pleases studios by making buckets of money in the process. Honestly, anybody able to transform a dog like last summer's Hancock into even a modest hit isn't a mere mortal; he's a cinematic force of nature.

But I can't help wondering if Seven Pounds — the title of which, while appropriate, is deliberately vague — will end Smith's invincible streak. Unlike the fact-based Happyness, which concluded on a triumphant note, this new film is relentlessly, grindingly and at times insufferably grim.

It feels like one of those dour 1970s Swedish tragedies, with Smith and co-star Rosario Dawson standing in for Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman. And I don't intend that as a compliment.

Muccino goes out of his way to turn Seven Pounds into a challenging experience, starting with the multiple flashbacks and fractured chronology that director Alejandro González Iñárritu made such a calling-card in 2003's 21 Grams. Properly employed, this sort of technique can drive and shape an already intriguing storyline ... but Grant Nieporte's script for Seven Pounds lacks the density necessary for so much narrative trickery.

Eventually, it feels as if Muccino and Nieporte are just messing with us, and that becomes annoying.

Which is a shame, because the moral imperative at the heart of their film is fascinating, particularly in our era of reflexively diminished responsibility. We live in a nation populated by too many cretins who never, ever acknowledge their own stupid or destructive behavior; they always seek to blame somebody else.

Such people would benefit from the serious study of Will Smith's Ben Thomas ... that is, were it not for the fact that the film itself is such a difficult slog.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Tale of Despereaux: Sizable odds

The Tale of Despereaux (2008) • View trailer for The Tale of Despereaux
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: G, despite some quite grim sequences
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.19.08
Buy DVD: The Tale of Despereaux • Buy Blu-Ray: The Tale of Despereaux [Blu-ray]

Directors Sam Fell and Rob Stevenhagen's adaptation of Kate DiCamillo's beloved book, The Tale of Despereaux, is a gorgeous visual experience: a sumptuous animated fable — in a wholly unique style, reminiscent of Flemish painters such as Vermeer and Brueghel — that employs an impeccably selected voice cast to deliver a clever fairy tale filled with colorful characters, and punctuated by several gently delivered morals.
The diminutive Despereaux, right, who always behaves like a perfect gentleman,
breaks all the rules of his Mouse World homeland when he dares speak to the
Princess Pea, center. Their lives subsequently take several unexpected — and
dangerous — turns, thanks to the arrival of Roscuro, a rat visiting from
another land.

It's also deliberately paced to the point of being sluggish, and — if a recent, family-laden Sacramento preview audience is any indication — a total snooze to the younger viewers who represent the film's target audience.

I'm all for respecting old-fashioned storytelling techniques, but not to the point of boring people. Scripters Gary Ross, Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi are to be commended for a smart, heartfelt screenplay that avoids the vibrant, joke-laden style that characterizes (for example) a Pixar animated film; such a "busy" approach would not have suited DiCamillo's delicate tale.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers may have gone too far in the other direction. Their handling of Despereaux comes complete with Sigourney Weaver's off-camera narration, intentionally employed to give the strong sense that we're all snuggled under the covers and listening to a beloved parent read the story aloud to us.

Not a bad approach, but the pacing is just ... well ... off.

Those not familiar with the book can be forgiven for wondering why it takes so long to even meet our hero; and even after he's introduced, he seems little more than a bit player in his own story. It's a tragic irony: Our little mouse protagonist — whose diminutive size, DiCamillo's book assures its readers, in no way diminishes his courage and fortitude — is utterly overwhelmed by nearly a dozen more interesting supporting characters.

And a lot of rats.

That's also a problem.

It wasn't an issue in 2003, when DeCamillo's book came out, but since then the animated, rat-oriented Flushed Away and Pixar's Ratatouille have reached movie screens, and one can't help comparing the rats-and-cooking focus of Despereaux with the latter.

Reaching back a bit further, I also note that the primary ratty villain of Despereaux — voiced by Ciaran Hinds — looks, sounds and acts a lot like Vincent Price's evil Ratigan in 1986's The Great Mouse Detective.

Despite what you may have heard, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. It's just ... disappointing.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Yes Man: Affirmative!

Yes Man (2008) • View trailer for Yes Man
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for brief profanity, fleeting nudity and smutty sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.18.08
Buy DVD: Yes Man • Buy Blu-Ray: Yes Man [Blu-ray]

After a depressing stretch that began with 2000's The Majestic and continued through Fun with Dick and Jane and last year's gawdawful Number 23 — with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind the only ray of, well, sunshine — I'm happy to report that Jim Carrey is back.

The clever and funny Jim Carrey. The guy who made such a splash with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber.
When his socially inept boss invites him to a Harry Potter theme party, the
suddenly always agreeable Carl (Jim Carrey) embraces the moment — in a
rented costume several sizes too small — with his new girlfriend, Allison
(Zooey Deschanel).

The actor who knew, once upon a time, how to modulate his goofy, giddy deliver in order to maximize genuine laughs ... as opposed to wigging out entirely on camera, and becoming the sort of tediously desperate man-child on which the likes of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly have built entire careers.

Carrey's always had much more talent than that, but many of his artistic decisions have been ... inadvisable. Like Robin Williams, Carrey wants to stretch and exercise his more serious side: display the inner human being who hides beneath the exterior clown. Sometimes the results have been captivating, as with The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine.

Then again, The Majestic and Number 23 were anything but captivating.

Happily, though, Carrey and director Peyton Reed have found the sweet spot with Yes Man. Carrey's Carl Allen, while frequently an unrestrained cut-up, never goes too far overboard; we're always able to relate to him as an actual person, which persuasively sells this guy's response to an unusual life-path decision.

Then again, maybe the success of Yes Man can be attributed to co-star Zooey Deschanel, who I've decided is one of Hollywood's best secret weapons. She also contributed to the charm of Elf, one of the few palatable Will Ferrell comedies. Deschanel's measured snarkiness helps ground the puffed-up tendencies of her high-profile co-stars; she has both a deadpan stare and comic timing to die for.

Deschanel made Ferrell better than he deserved to be in Elf, and she similarly helps Carrey's character here. They fit well together.

Carl, still pining over a marriage that hit the shoals several years earlier, has become a nabob of negativity. It comes easily at work, where as a bank loan officer he routinely stamps "rejected" on every application that crosses his desk. But this attitude also spills over into his social life, to the growing consternation of best buds Peter (Bradley Cooper, late of TV's Alias) and Rooney (Danny Masterson).

Indeed, Carl has become such a shut-in that he's in danger of losing his friends forever.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire: It is written!

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) • View trailer for Slumdog Millionaire
Five stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, profanity, torture and graphic child abuse
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.12.08
Buy DVD: Slumdog Millionaire • Buy Blu-Ray: Slumdog Millionaire [Blu-ray]

Some filmmakers — precious few — deserve to be cherished for their totality of talent: the degree to which they understand and exploit every aspect of the motion picture medium, from actors and camera angles to music and production design.
Jamal (Dev Patel, left) has enough on his plate, while facing progressively
harder question as a contestant on India's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire; the
last thing he needs is the rising hostility from the show's host, Prem (Anil
Kapoor), who feels increasingly threatened by the stage presence of this
no-account kid from the Mumbai slums.

Nothing is accidental in the hands of such an artist; everything is planned. Watching the resulting film is less a passive experience and more a celebration.

Director Danny Boyle has given us just such a movie this holiday season, with his dazzling Slumdog Millionaire.

This is a truly original creature: a distinctly different approach by the British Boyle to tell a story set halfway around the world, using a cast of primarily children and young people to tell a tale so audaciously melodramatic — from exhilarating love story to crime drama, travelogue and underdog saga — that we half expect the film to collapse under the weight of its own structure.

But that never happens. Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), adapting Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A, trigger every human reaction possible as their film proceeds.

Initially, though, you're likely to go pale.

The story begins brutally, as 18-year-old Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is hauled into a police station by an inspector (Irrfan Khan) who wants answers: As we discover via flashbacks, the boy, a contestant on India's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, is one question away from winning the top prize.

Clearly, Jamal has been cheating ... because how could an orphan from the slums of Mumbai possibly have known the answers to all those diverse and increasingly obscure questions?

The inspector wants his own answers, and isn't above employing torture to get them. But Jamal cannot grant the inspector's desire, and the attending sergeant — who cranks the car battery to shock the boy into submission — finally voices the unthinkable: What if the kid really knew the answers?

How, scoffs the inspector, could that ever be the case?

Jamal, tossed into a chair, eagerly responds to this question he can handle. But the answer is complicated, and requires him to return to his adolescent days on the streets: a harrowing saga shared with his older brother, Salim.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Cadillac Records: Edsel handling

Cadillac Records (2008) • View trailer for Cadillac Records
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, violence, sexual content and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.5.08
Buy DVD: Cadillac Records • Buy Blu-Ray: Cadillac Records [Blu-ray]

The music is sensational, and the acting is uniformly strong; to my great surprise, Beyoncé is even persuasive with her portrayal of Etta James.

Unfortunately, the script for Cadillac Records is sloppy and disjointed, and the film's overall approach is amazingly clumsy. I've rarely seen a director who's both adept at coaxing solid performances from a cast, but inept when it comes to putting a film together.
Having successfully gotten Muddy Waters' (Jeffrey Wright, right) signature
sound on the radio, music impresario Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) next
surprises his new colleague by unveiling a state-of-the-art recording studio,
where they can start producing and promoting their own stable of artists.

That would be Darnell Martin, who both wrote and directed Cadillac Records. That her heart was in the right place is obvious; she clearly burned to shine a light on the evolution of Chess Records, the Chicago-based blues label that played such a major role in breaking down the American color barrier in the late 1950s and early '60s.

But passion isn't enough, when it comes to telling a cohesive story; Martin has made a movie that treats its key players with distressing superficiality.

The questions emerge with the first scene, as the perhaps unwholesomely ambitious Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody, appropriately gaunt and hungry) suddenly transforms from a junkyard dealer to an inner-city blues club owner. An interesting shift, to be sure ... and we're supposed to believe that he made it solely because of a stinging remark made by the father of a young woman caught compromised with him?

Did Chess have no prior interest in music? Was he really merely an "opportunistic Polish Jew," as this film so frequently — and pejoratively — suggests?

Actually, I take it back: Martin's first mistake comes even sooner, by having this saga narrated by a much older Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), looking back over the tempestuous rise of Chess Records. Ongoing voice-overs can add clarity and great dignity to a film — Forrest Gump comes to mind — or they can become an intrusive crutch, employed too frequently to patch over gaping narrative holes.

Martin's use of voice-overs, sadly, falls into the latter category.

She has better luck following the parallel, post-WWII backstory of Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), a Deep-South sharecropper who, after hearing his own voice preserved by a primitive recording machine, decides that he needs to abandon his "slave shack" and make at least some attempt to share his sound with big-city denizens.

His initially unsuccessful efforts are quite touching, in great part because of the calm, unruffled dignity of Wright's performance; this sequence establishes Waters as the film's emotional core.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Milk: Standing tall

Milk (2008) • View trailer for Milk
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor and brief violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.4.08
Buy DVD: Milk • Buy Blu-Ray: Milk [Blu-ray]

Serendipity is fascinating.

At the point director Gus Van Sant began work on Milk, California's Proposition 8 probably hadn't even been drafted, let alone transformed into the ugliest campaign of the just-concluded election. At some point during filming and post-production, of course, the film's cast and crew must've noticed the rising storm in the Golden State ... but, even then, completing the picture and securing a release at precisely this point in time, literally on the heels of the Prop 8 results, would have been an impressive feat.
After mainstreaming his image and carefully courting important neighborhood
allies — and thanks to a successful ballot initiative that replaces citywide
representation with more regional district elections — Harvey Milk (Sean
Penn, center) triumphs during his third run for the San Francisco Board of
Supervisors. But the hard work is just beginning...

If Van Sant and Focus Features pulled it off deliberately, more power to them.

If it's sheer coincidence ... well, such things have happened before. (The China Syndrome comes to mind.)

Because while Milk would have been regarded as just another biopic — albeit an engrossing and superbly acted one — at any other point in history, its release now will be linked forever to the real-world events that evoke such a sickening echo of what happened in San Francisco almost 20 years ago to this day.

Although Van Sant's film is fueled by Sean Penn's skillfully shaded portrayal of Harvey Milk, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black also deserves considerable credit for the way he has condensed six tumultuous years in his subject's life, while still paying attention to both Milk's public and private life.

This won't be an easy film for homophobes to watch, since Van Sant and Black unapologetically deal with Milk's love life ... albeit with a level of tasteful restraint rarely applied to heterosexual coupling these days, which often exploit as much frontal female nudity as possible. In comparison, Van Sant is fairly discreet.

But then I suspect this film's audience won't include too many of the people who contributed — either financially, or through their votes — to the recent passage of Prop 8. They are excoriated in absentia here by the way this film indicts the ugly behavior of Bible-thumping activist Anita Bryant and California State Senator John Briggs.

Although gay issues continue to be a lightning rod, we may perhaps take comfort from the fact that far fewer people are willing to be as bestial as Bryant and Briggs were, two decades ago. The former lobbied successfully for the repeal of gay rights ordinances in St. Paul, Minn., Wichita, Kan., and Eugene, Ore.; the latter sponsored 1978's Proposition 6, seeking to ban gays from teaching in California public schools, and to remove known homosexuals and their supporters from their posts.

Talk about witch hunts...

All these events are covered in Van Sant's film, which begins in New York in 1972, as Milk meets and then moves to San Francisco with Scott Smith (James Franco). Seeking a haven from the police brutality in the Big Apple — where cops routinely bust and rough up "queers" on trumped-up charges — the two settle in the Castro District and open a camera shop.