Thursday, January 31, 2008

Untraceable: Unwatchable

Untraceable (2008) • View trailer
No stars (turkey). Rating: R, for profanity and excruciating, exploitative violence and torture
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.31.08

The trouble with culturing a disease is that the little buggers inevitably escape the petri dish.

Horror films are designed to be outrageous; they cater to a specific viewership that worships at the alter of torture-porn slime such as the Hostel and Saw series.

FBI cybercrime special agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane, center) and Portland
police detective Eric Box (Billy Burke, far right) watch in horror, along with
the rest of Marsh's colleagues, as another poor victim is tortured to death on a
Web site run by a tech-savvy Internet predator.
Indeed, it could be argued that horror films — like any other aspect of youth culture — aren't doing their job unless they offend and otherwise dismay mainstream society.

It's an entirely different matter, however, when such reprehensible garbage oozes from the fringe element and emerges with a deceptive outer layer of respectable clothing, designed specifically to entice the unwary.

In the case of Untraceable, the respectable clothing is worn by star Diane Lane, a veteran actress with a long list of credits stretching back to The Outsiders and The Cotton Club, who more recently copped an Oscar nomination for Unfaithful and indulged her romantic side in Under the Tuscan Sun.

Her presence here adds bogus legitimacy to an otherwise worthless piece of trash from a director — Gregory Hoblit — determined to rub our noses in precisely the sort of ghastly, grisly mayhem that has become de rigueur in horror flicks such as those cited above.

To call Untraceable tasteless is the worst of understatements.

Mainstream cop thrillers should be able to survive on tension and character development, and in fairness scripter Robert Fyvolent tries to get some juice going between FBI cybercrime special agent Jennifer Marsh (Lane) and police detective Eric Box (Billy Burke, wholly unmemorable). But Lane and Burke have zero chemistry ... or maybe it's just that Hoblit couldn't be bothered to encourage them to create any.

The story is a sadistic blend of cyber wizardry and old-fashioned mechanical torture. A deranged wing nut — Joseph Cross, as Owen Reilly — sets up a Web site with streaming video of an escalating series of murders-in-progress.

He starts with a kitten but quickly escalates to people, and the gimmick is that the various death traps are controlled by the number of viewers who log into the site: The more lookie-loos, the faster the victim dies.

Friday, January 25, 2008

27 Dresses: Reasonably well-appointed

27 Dresses (2008) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity and sexual innuendo
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.25.08

27 Dresses seems tailor-made for star Katherine Heigl, who continues her meteoric ascent from television's Grey's Anatomy and last summer's Knocked Up.

After taking a nasty tumble during the waning hours of an otherwise successful
wedding, Jane (Katherine Heigl) is helped to her feet by the solicitous Kevin
(James Marsden), whose presence isn't as accidental as it seems. Even so, as
"meet cute" encounters come and go, this one's pretty good.
Her talent and temperament are perfect for director Anne Fletcher's frothy romantic comedy, and Aline Brosh McKenna's script immediately establishes its charming premise: that Heigl's Jane has become a career bridal attendant, although her own happy ending is nowhere in sight.

We hit the ground running during a harried but not-so-atypical evening, as Jane finds herself catering to two brides on the same night, gamely racing back and forth between both events while changing in the back seat of a cab (a cute bit with Michael Ziegfeld as the flustered cabbie).

Jane fulfills this function not because she runs a professional bridal business — indeed, by day she's the efficient right-hand-gal to self-made entrepreneur George (Edward Burns) — but because, well, she just likes weddings. Likes to help plan them, adores being part of them, and has become indispensable to an ever-lengthening string of friends, acquaintances and office mates whose weddings were a triumph, thanks to Jane's meticulous efficiency and cheerful accommodation to even the most bizarre bridal request.

The latter can be typified by the inevitably hideous choice of bridesmaids' gowns, but even here Jane retains a soft spot in her heart for each of these taste-challenged outfits; every one represents a happy memory.

McKenna's script is peppered with tart dialogue and a reasonably credible approach toward the modern dating scene; the lines are delivered with well-timed crispness by Heigl and a mostly solid roster of supporting players. Top marks go to Judy Greer, who very nearly steals most of her scenes as Casey, Jane's snarky best friend and colleague at George's company, the New Age-y Urban Everest. Watch Casey's expressions, as she follows Jane and George during an early scene at the office; although we're getting important expository dialogue from Heigl and Burns, it's hard to concentrate on anything except Greer.

Jane's rather unusual hobby notwithstanding, her life is complicated by a series of additional issues: She's madly in love with her boss, but only from afar. Although relying on her for everything in a professional capacity, George is oblivious to his devoted assistant's worshipful gaze.

And that situation gets worse with the arrival of Jane's trashy and superficial younger sister, Tess (Malin Akerman), who immediately swoons at the sight of George. Although having nothing in common with him — which becomes a growing issue with Jane, who cannot stand deception — Tess lies like a rug to hook and land the guy, at which point our heroine suddenly is roped into planning a wedding for her own sister ... to the man that she secretly adores.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Mad Money: Moderately amusing spare change

Mad Money (2008) • View trailer
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too harshly, for mild sensuality and a fleeting drug reference
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.24.08

Although unlikely to set the world on fire, Mad Money is a breezy little caper romp that provides ample opportunity for stars Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes to display their light comedy chops.

Although their first score falls short of setting them up for life, Nina (Queen
Latifah, left), Bridget (Diane Keaton, center) and Jackie (Katie Holmes) become
giddy over the mere fact that the scheme worked ... and that it can be repeated.
The production values are modest, and Glenn Gers' script doesn't tread any particularly provocative ground; aside from the high-wattage cast, this is the sort of pleasant diversion that usually turns up as a made-for-TV movie ... or, back in the day, would have been the bottom half of a movie theater double- feature.

Which is not intended as condemnation. B-films with no particular pretensions often are far more entertaining than their bigger-budgeted cousins.

Perhaps most impressive is the degree to which Diane Keaton, 62 years young, carries this film; she just gets better and better. Finally content to abandon all those Woody Allen-esque behavioral quirks that became her stock-in-trade for so many years following Annie Hall, Keaton now is comfortable in a broader range of moods. Here, she's the most methodical and organized of a trio of quite unlikely bank robbers, and she's quite credible as a white-collar master criminal.

Not so credible as a mop-wielding cleaning woman, but hey, we can't have everything.

Director Callie Khouri, who won an Academy Award for writing 1991's Thelma and Louise before becoming a hyphenate and directing and scripting 2002's Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, has an ear for the gal-chat that bounces between the three protagonists. Better still, all are sympathetic characters, and that's important: We're expected to identify with them, even as they turn larcenous.

But Gers' script is quite aggravating in one respect: its reliance on a flash-forward framing device that reveals, right away, that our heroes are being grilled by the cops. In other words, they've been caught, and we learn this even before we get a sense of what they'll do to attract this sort of attention.

Even clumsier is the talk-to-the-camera technique that Khouri employs a few times; this gimmick almost never works in a conventional film, and should be reserved solely for serious historical projects such as Reds.

We're thus robbed of a great deal of the story's potential suspense. There's no question of whether they'll get busted; our musings now are restricted to when and how. That's a daft artistic decision.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Orphanage: Creepy child's play

The Orphanage (2007) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for disturbing images and unexpected violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.18.08

Nervously unsettled women, oddly sinister children and creepy old estates have been a bad mix ever since 1961's The Innocents, director Jack Clayton's richly atmospheric adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.

Laura (Belén Rueda) decides that the only way to fully understand the ghostly
visitations plaguing her new manor home will involve returning the building to
the state it was in years earlier, when it served as an orphanage and she was one
of its young residents. to that end, she puts the dorm-style bedroom back
together and dons a uniform once worn by a staff member ... and waits.
More recently, we were reminded of this heady recipe's ability to raise goosebumps with Nicole Kidman's hypnotic "comeback" role in director Alejandro Amenabar's equally spooky 2001 chiller, The Others.

Enter producer Guillermo del Toro (director of Pan's Labyrinth), who has championed Spanish director J.A. Bayona's similarly suspenseful The Orphanage. Screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez certainly knows his movie history, because his storyline pays homage to both above-mentioned predecessors, while also borrowing elements from more conventional haunted house entries such as The Haunting and Legend of Hell House.

The result belongs to the school of less-is-more suspense, with Bayona quite content to turn the screws and let our imaginations do the worst. He's after tension, not pointless gore effects, although The Orphanage has a few unexpected shockers that'll make unprepared viewers levitate from their seats.

The moody, malignant tone is established immediately, during a clever opening sequence that shows young hands ripping away wallpaper to reveal the title credits; it's a simple effect, but it feels violently invasive, as if we're sharing secrets that weren't intended to see the light of day.

Which is precisely the point of Sánchez's narrative. Pay close attention to the details, because nothing is wasted along the way.

The film begins with a flashback, as a 7-year-old girl named Laura is introduced as one of the most popular residents at an orphanage by the ocean. She's a happy child, well-regarded by the staff and cherished by the other orphans, all of whom she loves like brothers and sisters.

No surprise, then, that such a well-adjusted child would be adopted, leaving all her friends behind.

Three decades pass, at which point the story officially begins. Laura (Belén Rueda), now happily married to Carlos (Fernando Cayo), has returned to her childhood home. The manor was abandoned years ago; Laura and Carlos, a doctor, plan to reopen it as a center for sick and disabled children. Its setting, adjacent to the ocean and all that fresh salt air, also should be beneficial to their own child, 7-year-old Símon (Roger Príncep), who doesn't know that he's a) adopted, and b) HIV-positive.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

There Will Be Blood: Too anemic

There Will Be Blood (2007) • View trailer
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.17.08

Some films can be admired, even when they're difficult to enjoy.

Some even resist admiration.

Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis, right) and his young son, H.W. (Dillon
Freasier), share an unsettling bond that has more to do with opportunism
than actual love: a dynamic that will fracture as a result of events soon to
take place in the dust-worn community of Little Boston.
There Will Be Blood has much going for it, starting with director/screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson's all-encompassing sense of early 20th century California, and the hard-scrabble lives endured by the prospectors, entrepreneurs and just plain charlatans who helped create the nascent oil industry.

Production designer Jack Fisk and cinematographer Robert Elswit thoroughly immerse us in the dusty, grimy atmosphere that accompanies both the work and those who endure it; the sense of actually being part of the environment is as strong as in the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men.

It's also a fascinating chunk of history too infrequently explored by the motion picture industry, which generally focuses on the preceding era — all those Westerns — or the 1920s onward. Rarely do we settle into this period when civilization clearly has been established, although social decorum and the rules of law, order and justice haven't quite caught up yet.

The film also is fueled by a dynamic and thoroughly compelling starring performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, who throws himself into this part, body and soul, with a vigor rarely seen. "Down and dirty" can't begin to describe his work here; his Daniel Plainview — a well-chosen name for a man who prides himself on plain speaking and clear vision — is so much larger than life, so much more vibrant than anybody else, that he seems to stride in blazing color through an otherwise sepia-hued cast of characters.

Unfortunately, There Will Be Blood also is grindingly dull, aggressively unpleasant and populated by amoral, opportunistic individuals with little if any redeeming value. Granted, this tale deliberately focuses on people seeking any available means to exploit each other, but the tapestry includes an entire small community; despite this, we're not given a single character to care about. The one possible exception — Plainview's son — remains a mostly mute phantom, used as little more than an appendage when Plainview wishes to convey his "family values."

And, because this is a Paul Thomas Anderson epic, things inevitably turn weird in the final act. He doesn't get as indulgently freakish as the rain of frogs that climaxed Magnolia, but he certainly concludes this story with a bit of giddily exploitative violence in a setting so intentionally bizarre that it feels like something borrowed from Sweeney Todd.

Even if you've floated along up to this point, buoyed by Day-Lewis' admittedly riveting acting, this final sequence can't help but leave a sour taste.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Bucket List: Going in style

The Bucket List (2007) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.11.08

Some films are bulletproof: They'll live or die solely in the court of popular opinion, regardless of critical commentary.

Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman, right) isn't entirely happy about the first
adventure proposed by new best friend Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson), and his
nervous jitters increase as the drop zone approaches. But he'll soon find
tougher things to face: his own feelings about life and mortality.
The Bucket List is just such a picture: a sentimental and predictable script; a concept that explores wish fulfillment and roads not taken; and two veteran actors who could deliver these frequently amusing but not terribly substantial lines in their sleep.

What's not to like?

There's something undeniably engaging about watching a couple of old pros work such material ... and few could be better than Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman.

Nicholson plays Edward Cole, a corporate raider maintaining his empire by gobbling up distressed hospitals and turning them into soulless, profit-driven businesses that regard patients as inconvenient, if not a downright nuisance. Edward is, as a result, precisely the sort of man who would benefit from a stinging come-uppance; he gets it when an unexpected cancer diagnosis shortens his life to a matter of months.

Edward also winds up in one of his own hospitals, where he's hoist by the petard of his own efficiency edicts: two patients per room, no exceptions. He thus winds up having his own private misery invaded by Carter Chambers (Freeman), a career car mechanic facing his own mortality, and for similar reasons.

The degree to which Justin Zackham's script has any actual juice occurs during these early scenes, before the two men thaw enough to reach out: Director Rob Reiner lets both get reasonably scruffy as they navigate the humiliating trauma of (for example) keeping each other up while wracked with bone-ratting chills from chemotherapy, or dashing for another round of vomiting in the shared bathroom, while trying not to be noticed by anybody else in the room.

Both men go into brief remission and wonder how to approach their final days. Edward, having grown to respect his new companion — actually "liking" each other will take a bit more time — embraces Carter's half-hearted scribblings on a sheet of yellow legal paper: a long-ago philosophy exercise designed to encourage people to imagine what they'd want to accomplish, if enabled to know when they'd die.

It's a "bucket list": things to do before kicking the bucket (a line Nicholson delivers with mordant relish).

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War: Audacious slice of recent history

Charlie Wilson's War (2007) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, drug use, nudity and violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.10.08

Those who wonder if truth really is stranger than fiction need look no further than Charlie Wilson.

The East Texas congressman's wild escapade in Afghanistan is the sort of crazed endeavor that wouldn't be believed if it turned up in a mainstream thriller; it's a throwback to the gung-ho statesmanship of President Theodore Wilson, whose flamboyant style was portrayed so well in 1975's The Wind and the Lion.

When Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks, left) demands to know precisely what sort
of weapon would be required to down a Soviet war helicopter, scruffy CIA agent
Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman, center) introduces the congressman
to a chess-playing expert on Soviet intel named Mike Vickers (Christopher
Denham). These are merely three of many colorful characters who slyly
orchestrate what comes to be known as "Charlie Wilson's War."
But that story — highly fictionalized, despite being lifted from an actual historical incident — took place during simpler times, when one still could imagine two men changing the destinies of entire countries. The events of Charlie Wilson's War, by contrast, are scarcely two decades old ... and apparently far closer to actual truth.

The setting is the early 1980s, and we're forced to believe that an unlikely trio — a Texas congressman best known as a party animal, a thoroughly vexed CIA agent and a wealthy Texas socialite who had found God — moved bureaucratic mountains so that long-suffering Afghan rebels could get the weapons they needed, in order to repel the invading Soviet army.


I'm not sure which is worse … accepting the notion that Wilson managed to finesse the Washington, D.C., system and engineer this nutball scheme, or the possibility that this sort of behavior is business as usual on Capitol Hill.

And while screenwriter Aaron Sorkin — adapting George Crile's best-selling book — clearly cherry-picked details and messes a bit with the timeline, the basic facts are so wonderfully audacious that they cannot be dismissed. When asked how the Russians were defeated in Afghanistan, then-Pakistani President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq replied, "Charlie did it."

OK, sure, quite a few more people were involved, and the truth was more complicated.

But not all that much...

Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as Wilson, who by 1979 has represented Texas' second district for six years, and has a reputation derived solely from his nickname: "Good time Charlie."

Wilson loves alcohol and women, and not necessarily in that order; he also isn't too judicious about the company he keeps. Indeed, we first meet him in the fantasy suite of a Las Vegas casino, relaxing in a hot tub with a few strippers and other questionable companions.

It seems an unduly salacious beginning for a saga of political machinations, but this is the very setting where the actual Wilson had his epiphany, when his attention was distracted by a televised 60 Minutes profile — produced by Crile — about the Afghans who, armed with the equivalent of flintlocks, were trying to wage war against the assault helicopters of the invading Soviet army.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Great Debaters: Words with power

The Great Debaters (2007) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, disturbing images, brief profanity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.4.08

On top of his impressive skills as an actor and director, Denzel Washington has an unerring gift for spotting young talent.

Having shephereded his team through several early victories, Professor Melvin
B. Tolson (Denzel Washington, left) prepares for the next challenge by giving
study pointers to, from lft, Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), Henry Lowe
(Nate Parker) and James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker).
He coaxed a haunting, painfully nuanced performance out of Derek Luke in 2002's Antwone Fisher, and now has done the same with young Denzel Whitaker in The Great Debaters, a stirring, fact-based saga that stretches the truth a bit, but nonetheless conveys a strong sense of time, place and destiny.

Washington also gives himself a plum role, which he delivers with his usual steel-gazed intensity. From his first appearance — striding into a classroom, standing on a table and intoning "I am the darker brother," from Langston Hughes' I, Too, Sing America — we scarcely can take our eyes off him. That we do is testament to the similarly powerful performances elicited from Whitaker and co-stars Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and Forest Whitaker (no relation to this film's younger Whitaker).

The Great Debaters is an old-style Hollywood underdog saga, given additional juice both by its setting — small-town Texas in 1935, at the racially combustible midpoint of the Great Depression — and by the conviction Washington brings to the material. Watching a quartet of kids from Wiley College rise to become an undefeated debating squad in the Jim Crow South is stirring enough; understanding that they do so in an environment laced with lynchings and the undisguised hatred of sneering white crackers, makes this one powerfully nervous picture.

Indeed, an atmosphere of latent menace pervades every scene, settling on us like the stifling humidity that cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It) captures so well.

Washington plays college professor Melvin B. Tolson, one of this film's two authentic characters; the other is young Denzel Whitaker's James Farmer Jr. In real life, Tolson fought on campus and off for racial equality and social justice; he eventually became a poet very much in the mold of Langston Hughes. James Farmer Jr. grew up to found the Congress of Race Equality in 1942, after which he remained a highly visible player in the civil rights movement.

The other members of the debate squad, notably Henry Lowe (Parker) and Samantha Booke (Smollett), are composite characters created from many other individuals ... which makes the "Henry and Samantha went on to greater glory" text crawl at film's end an insufferable fabrication. How is the average viewer to separate the authentic later accomplishments of Tolson and Farmer from those of "Lowe" and "Booke," when the text statements are presented with identical candor?

Movies really must stop lying to patrons like this. I expected better of Washington and screenwriters Robert Eisele and Jeffrey Porro, particular since they dedicated this picture to the actual Tolson's passion, dedication and teachings.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

National Treasure: Book of Secrets — Sophomoric fun

National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for powder-puff violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.3.08

Hollywood hokum doesn't get much sillier than National Treasure: Book of Secrets.

Having discovered and ventured into a hitherto unknown chamber beneath
Mount Rushmore, our heroes — from left, Patrick (Jon Voight), Ben (Nicolas
Cage), Emily (Helen Mirren) and Abigail (Diane Kruger) — are about to have
an unpleasantly close encounter with way too much running water. Just an
average day, for our intrepid treasure-seekers...
That said, this 21st century riff on Boys' Own Adventure Stories should play well with folks not willing to wait for masters Spielberg and Ford to unveil the long-awaited fourth entry in the way-similar Indiana Jones franchise.

Boasting impressively opulent production design — Dominic Watkins, take a bow — and an aggressive pace that minimizes the time during which we might contemplate the script's numerous lapses in logic, this return visit from Nicolas Cage's honorable treasure hunter is pure escapist fun: certainly not a bad thing, for families seeking movie thrills during the waning days of the holiday season.

Book of Secrets is a well-mounted "good time at the movies" that exploits enough actual history to qualify for a public service merit badge ... which is appropriate, since Cage's Benjamin Franklin Gates is the ultimate boy scout: a do-gooder to the core, forever willing to think the best of friends and enemies alike, even when circumstances call for a bit more healthy cynicism.

And when we reach this film's equivalent of Superman's "truth, justice and the American way" speech, Cage delivers it with a solemn eloquence that makes us believe, if only for a few seconds, that solid moral values do still have a place in American society.

Cage is great at that sort of stuff; he projects a guileless sincerity — a puppy dog frankness — that begs us to trust him. And why not? His Ben Gates demonstrated the highest level of integrity during his first adventure, and we've no reason to expect any less here.

Indeed, director Jon Turteltaub (back from the first film) and a legion of eight (!) credited screenwriters and an equal number of producers (!!) have ensured that the formula doesn't stray a jot from what worked the first time. Granted, the one-liners may be a little more James Bondishly smart-assed, but otherwise this is business as usual.