Friday, February 29, 2008

In Bruges: Caught between heaven and hell

In Bruges (2008) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, drug use and pervasive violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.29.08

At first blush, In Bruges appears to be a droll entry in the British wiseguy noir genre, very much in the mold of, say, Guy Ritchie's Snatched.

Contract killer Ken (Brendan Gleeson) insists that younger colleague Ray (Colin
Farrell) should make the most of their enforced stay in the quaintly picturesque
Belgian city of Bruges, but the latter can't bend himself into a tourist-y mind
set. Sadly, both men soon will learn that their presence in Bruges is mere
preamble to some highly unpleasant doings. Life is like that, in British
gangster flicks.
Our protagonists — definitely not "heroes," in any sense of the word — are contract assassins Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell), who've been ordered to lay low in Bruges, Belgium, in the aftermath of a hit gone terribly awry. They're the original Mutt 'n' Jeff pair: Ken the older, sturdily built, sad-faced, soft-spoken and philosophical sophisticate; Ray the callow, wiry, cheerfully vulgar and shamelessly ignorant dilettante.

They're also quite funny, both individually and as a unit. Despite the absence of common ground, theirs is an oddly intimate relationship, Ken serving as overly patient father to Ray's impetuous surrogate son. Ken, wanting to make the most of their surroundings as they kill time, insists on brochure-guided walking tours and slow boat rides through the canals that interlace the city, the better to appreciate Bruges' utterly gorgeous, fairy-tale architecture and history.

And did I mention that this story takes place during Christmas? (I've no doubt this film will boost the city's tourist trade.)

Ray, petulant as a 5-year-old, couldn't care less. Farrell screws his face up into the picture of abject misery: huddled into a jacket, hands stuffed into pockets, eyes squinched in such bored anguish that his bushy black brows blend together, seeming to perch like some small furry beast on his lower forehead.

Ray shamelessly mocks the picture-postcard setting with language so coarse that we can't help but laugh. ("If I'd grown up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I didn't. So it doesn't.")

But this younger man also is being eaten by something awful: a memory that reduces him to shattered despair. It has to do with precisely how catastrophically wrong that previous job went, and writer/director Martin McDonagh's film shifts into an entirely different gear once this information is revealed.

Although the odd encounters with eccentric supporting characters continue, the mood suddenly becomes more twisted menace than macabre black comedy. It's like being thrown into a room crowded with people, all of whom have the manners, morals and unpredictable temperament of the sinister master of ceremonies from Cabaret. Very unsettling.

Try as we might, we cannot step back and view these people as exaggerated grotesques, an atmospheric safety valve that allowed us to survive something like (for example) Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.

Mind you, such films aren't intended for the unsuspecting general public in the first place. In Bruges, like its genre companions, is horrifically violent and unapologetically amoral: as savage a view of humanity as anybody could imagine, the story's cartoonish qualities notwithstanding. Proceed at your own risk.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Vantage Point: Point of far too many returns

Vantage Point (2008) • View trailer
1.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity, action violence and relentless gunplay
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.28.08

Barry L. Levy's screenplay for Vantage Point may have seemed like a clever, can't-miss concept on paper, but it's paralyzingly inept on the big screen.

To explain:

In the aftermath of an assassination attempt on the U.S. president, Secret Service
agents Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid, center) and Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox,
right) examine the footage obtained by American tourist Howard Lewis (Forest
Whitaker), in an effort to see where the shooter was concealed.
Way back in the mists of time, the superlative 1960s horror/sci-fi TV series The Outer Limits aired an episode titled Controlled Experiment, which concerned a pair of Martian researchers who, intrigued by our quaint custom of murder ("which only happens here," one of them notes, "on this weird little planet"), scrutinize an incident involving a jilted floozy who blows away her unfaithful lover after he steps out of the elevator leading to the lobby of a low-rent hotel.

Thanks to a "temporal condenser," which can reverse, slow down and speed up time like some amped-up DVD player, the Martians study the incident from every possible angle, and even freeze the action to interfere with salient details.

On paper, a clever idea. Watching at home, however, viewers quickly grew tired of seeing the primary action — the descending elevator, the lobby confrontation, the bullet emerging from the gun — over and over and over again ... not to mention the golly-gee-whiz noise and light show that accompanied the use of the temporal condenser, also broadcast over and over and over again.

Vantage Point suffers from the same problem.

Familiarity really does breed contempt.

The setting is contemporary, the event a photo-op in a crowded Spanish city square, as U.S. President Ashton (William Hurt) steps to a podium and prepares to open a landmark summit on the global war on terror. Seconds later, he has been shot; Secret Service agents scramble to protect our chief of state, while the panicked crowd attempts to flee before anything else happens. Explosions follow; chaos erupts.

We witness this event on the monitors within a TV news truck parked on the outskirts of the plaza in question; producer Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver) cuts between on-site cameras. She's vexed because one remote operator doesn't follow instructions, and annoyed because the on-air talent is prone to injecting her political views into what should be unbiased reportage.

Then the unthinkable erupts; as Brooks and her control room crew stare, shattered, at the aftermath, the scene flares out like a candle.

And film director Pete Travis "rewinds" what we've just seen in fast reverse, re-setting the clock to a few seconds before noon, and unspools the events again ... but this time from the point of view of veteran Secret Service agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid).

Another 10 minutes or so of slightly altered exposition, and Travis does this again.

And again.

And again, and again, and again.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Charlie Bartlett: The doctor is in

Charlie Bartlett (2007) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, drug content, teenage smoking and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.22.08

Hang around long enough, and you'll spot this disclaimer at the very bottom of the final credits for Charlie Bartlett:

"No teenagers were harmed in the making of this motion picture."

Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr., center) gets curious after spotting a long
line of boys and girls waiting to visit the boys restroom, but before he can peer
inside, a thoroughly calm Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin, left) emerges and
heads off in the other direction ... at which point the other students disappear
as well, leaving Gardner to wonder again precisely what the new kid in school
is up to.
That observation sums up the wonderfully arch tone of Gustin Nash's script, which fuels another mordant view of high school life, very much in the mold of Election and Juno.

Indeed, Nash and director Jon Poll quite cleverly reference one of the great anti-establishment movies of all time, by making prominent use of the Cat Stevens song "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out," which served as an anthem for 1972's Harold and Maude. The song's appearance here conveys precisely the same sort of triumphant coda: a wistful reminder that success and survival often erupt in unexpected ways, and that some of the best happy endings involve simply surviving another day.

With integrity intact. That's the most important part.

Charlie Bartlett is as hilariously dark a view of high school dynamics as I've seen since Heathers. That film made a heroine out of a girl who essentially turned serial killer in order to establish a place in the social pecking order, whereas Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) gets ahead in his school by supplying prescription medication to an expanding base of "clients."

The film opens as Charlie is expelled from yet another private school, for making and selling impressively realistic IDs. Although outwardly every inch the blueprint of an educated, well-spoken preppy scholar, Charlie has been tossed from every institution within range of the palatial estate he shares with his somewhat scattered mother, Marilyn (Hope Davis).

That leaves only the local public high school: a bubbling stew of unrestrained hormones and individualists who naturally view the academy-dressed Charlie with giggling derision. Our hero eventually makes his way home with a black eye, courtesy of schoolyard thug Murphy (Tyler Hilton, who played the young Elvis Presley in Walk the Line).

Charlie's mother, incapable of considering any other alternative, sends her only child to the shrink they keep on retainer; that gentleman, not really motivated to "cure" this ongoing cash cow, suggests a regimen of Ritalin.

But Charlie's smarter than that. After wisely rejecting this prescription, having perceived that a five-day dose turns him into an over-stimulated madman, he transforms the hostile Murphy into a business partner; they sell the rest of the pills to an eager consumer base at the next high school dance, and marvel at the results.

Suddenly, Charlie has found a new business model ... and a path toward his own popularity.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Spiderwick Chronicles: Enchanted land

The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for fantasy violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.21.08

Nickelodeon continues its impressive run of high-quality family films, with a handsomely mounted and highly entertaining adaptation of The Spiderwick Chronicles, based on the cleverly packaged quintet of books by artist/author Tony DiTerlizzi and author Holly Black.

After his brother is kidnapped by goblins, Jared (Freddie Highmore) and his
new friend, Hogsqueal, watch with mounting horror as the other boy is
questioned by the sinister ogre who rules the forest.
Young readers who've exhausted the Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket titles are bound to enjoy this saga (really only one book divided into five easily digestible chapters). And while it's inevitable, in our post-Potter world of youth-oriented fantasy, that all "new" books get compared to J.K. Rowling, that isn't terribly fair to DiTerlizzi and Black.

The Spiderwick Chronicles, published in 2003, stands quite well on its own. By design, the story is more American and comfortably contemporary than most fantasy titles for young readers, and DiTerlizzi's lovely line art plays a major role in the narrative's enchantment factor. Indeed, I haven't seen a young reader's book so perfectly married to its artwork since Garth Williams' illustrations graced E.B. White's Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little.

The film adaptation, which contains a bit more depth and angst than most so-called children's films, comes from Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum and — here's a surprise! — indie filmmaker John Sayles, who usually only works on his own projects. But it's a natural fit: Sayles explored Irish fables and mystical creatures superbly with his own 1994 film, The Secret of Roan Inish, which remains one of the gentlest and most beautifully rendered all-ages fantasy films I've ever seen.

The adaptation of Spiderwick concentrates of books one and five in the set, pretty much abandoning the additional creatures and narrative complexities found in books two through four, but that's all right; Kirkpatrick, Berenbaum and Sayles deftly capture the tone and spirit of the entire saga. (Young readers hoping to meet the river troll, the phooka and the forest elves may feel differently.)

The film also draws considerable power from the impressive performances delivered by 15-year-old Freddie Highmore, continuing the splendid body of work that began with Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And that's "performances," plural, because in Spiderwick he plays identical twins Jared and Simon Grace.

It's not merely a matter of superb special-effects work, although the scenes involving both boys are amazing. Highmore crafts two dissimilar personalities that are so distinct that at times, even knowing better, I thought I was watching two different actors. Jared and Simon look quite the same, and yet they also look different, and it's more than the clothes and the hair. Depending on which boy he's playing, Highmore modulates his body movements: the way he stands, tilts his head, uses his eyes to probe a darkened corner or somebody else's expression.

Highmore's work moves beyond "gimmick" and becomes wholly accepted by us viewers. He's good enough that, were Oscar-like awards granted to children's films, he'd deserve to be nominated for both roles.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Oscar Shorts 2007: Good things in small packages

Academy Award-Nominated Short Subjects (2007)
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: Unrated, but the equivalent of PG-13 for chaste nudity and violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.15.08

We see tantalizing snatches of them — no more than a few seconds from each — during the annual Academy Awards ceremony.

Some look interesting; others look profoundly poignant. Some seem downright weird.
Peter and his pet duck stare longingly through a hole in their protective fence,
and out at the forest beyond, which looks like such a wonderful place to play.
But they'll soon learn that this glade has hidden dangers, in Peter and the Wolf.

I refer to the live action and animated short subjects, which for most of us are no more than a list of nominated titles and directors, followed by a gratefully enthusiastic acceptance speech that leaves us wishing for an opportunity to see these filmlets. Aside from an occasional flicker of recognition — Pixar has placed quite a few entries in the animated category, over the years — we're left to wonder about most of these shorts.

Well, wonder no longer.

Perhaps encouraged by the public's growing taste for feature-length documentaries, Magnolia Pictures has assembled the 10 Oscar-nominated live action and animated shorts — five of each — into a road-show package that will dock for one week at Sacramento's Crest Theater, starting today. And while my recommendations are cautiously qualified, you really shouldn't miss the chance to see this program at least once, if only to satisfy your own curiosity.

I say "qualified" because the menu is quite a mixed bag.

All five of the live-action entries are noteworthy: modestly amusing at the least (The Substitute) and impressively produced and acted at the best (The Tonto Woman). One of them, At Night, may well be the saddest short film you ever experience.

The animated entries are ... not so hot. Several represent the triumph of form over content; I can only assume that the individuals who selected the nominees valued animation style first, and storyline second. Not one entry has the brilliant blend of storytelling and rich animation that made prior Pixar entries such as One Man Band and For the Birds (the 2001 winner in this category) so entertaining.

Suzie Templeton and Hugh Welchman's revisionist take on Peter and the Wolf, a UK/ Polish co-production, is the most satisfying of the current bunch. The puppet-style animation is perfect for this adaptation of the familiar story, although you'll wonder for the first few scenes — which play to dead silence from the soundtrack — if you've stumbled into the wrong film.

But then Prokofiev's familiar anthems swell into life, and the saga of a boy, his duck, a bird, a cat and a hungry wolf unfolds as we remember it ... more or less. The charm of this adaptation, aside from the beautifully crafted puppets, comes from the ways in which Templeton and Welchman tweak the narrative. This is most definitely a post-modern Peter, and he comes of age with a live-and-let-live maturity far beyond his years.

At just over 32 minutes, it's also the longest animated piece, but the time passes without discomfort.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Fool's Gold: 18-karat fun

Fool's Gold (2008) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, profanity and brief nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.14.08

Giddy lunacy isn't as easy to pull off as you might think; the slightest mistake, and the whole thing collapses into dull, dumb, mind-numbing tedium.
Eager to start a day of treasure-hunting, our heroes — from left, Tess (Kate
Hudson), Finn (Matthew McConaughey), Nigel (Donald Sutherland), Gemma
(Alexis Dziena) and Alfonz (Ewan Bremmer) — are dismayed to discover
that another boat and crew have beaten them to the punch.

Hollywood produced an impressive number of successful screwball comedies in the late 1930s and early '40s, and scores of writers and directors have frustrated themselves — and annoyed audiences — trying to reproduce the formula.

Director Andy Tennant, working from a script he wrote with John Claflin and Daniel Zelman, gets the mix just about right in Fool's Gold. The result is a rip-roarin' ocean adventure: relentlessly silly at times, but good-natured enough that you're unlikely to care. The project also has been molded to Matthew McConaughey's easygoing manly charm, and he's surrounded by an ensemble cast of engaging characters, all well played.

Additionally, the film re-unites McConaughey with Kate Hudson, his co-star from How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. McConaughey and Hudson work reasonably well together: Their flirty banter is lively and delivered with well-timed precision, and the carnal chemistry positively smolders.

It's hard not to be impressed by McConaughey's savvy; his romantic comedies may be insubstantial trifles, but they're also quite popular. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days made more than $100 million, and the more recent Failure to Launch came close to the same threshold.

In each case, McConaughey allows himself to be cast as a slacker (to varying degrees) in what seems, at first blush, to be the secondary role behind a stronger female lead ... but in truth he easily commands the screen, and the story, in each case.

His role in Fool's Gold is no different: Ben "Finn" Finnegan, a single-minded beach-bum treasure hunter quite happily living an adolescent fantasy. Carelessness, slovenly behavior and a tendency to lie his way to a desired goal have cost him everything; he has no money, no material possessions and — as this film begins — no wife. Tess (Hudson), finally fed up with the guy, has just divorced him.

Finn can't understand it. He recognizes and acknowledges his many faults; in his mind, that should be good enough. And when such protests are delivered with that fetching sparkle in McConaughey's eyes, he's hard to resist. Even Tess agrees: She still loves the guy, but can't live with him.

Trouble is, she also can't live without him ... and this sort of fractured marital dynamic is at the heart of every successful screwball comedy going back to classics such as 1937's The Awful Truth.

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Eye: Not worth a second glance

The Eye (2008) • View trailer
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.8.08

If mood and atmosphere were everything, The Eye would be a modestly effective little chiller.

Directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud maintain a reasonably edgy level of suspense — for awhile, anyway — and set up all sorts of spooky little interludes, most of them punctuated by unnecessarily loud blasts from Marco Beltrami's soundtrack (the better to make viewers jump, you understand).
In one of this weak film's more successfully unsettling moments, Sydney
(Jessica, left) peers into her bathroom mirror and sees the reflection of an
entirely different young woman. But when Sydney begins to conflate her own
identity with that of this mysterious stranger, it's just another of the many ways
in which this laughable failure loses its vision.

Unfortunately, the story makes no sense whatsoever.

All concerned seem to recognize this rather serious problem, since the film opens and closes with lengthy expository voice-overs by star Jessica Alba, whose monologues — particularly the one at the end — apparently are intended to decipher plot points that aren't explained a whit in Sebastian Gutierrez's ham-fisted screenplay.

These little speeches don't help. Indeed, the concluding soliloquy prompts snickers of unintended laughter.

The Eye is yet another American remake of a recent Chinese horror film — in this case, 2002's far more effective Pang brothers chiller, Gin Gwai — that "borrows" its premise from a hoary Hollywood horror cliché going back to the dawn of time: the transplanted body part with a mind of its own.

The most famous early example is 1935's Mad Love, an adaptation of Maurice Renard's oft-filmed short story, "The Hands of Orlac," which starred Peter Lorre as an insane doctor who operates on a pianist's injured hands, with deliciously awful results.

In this modern update, Alba plays Sydney Wells, a renowned Los Angeles concert violinist. Sydney is talented, intelligent and independent; she also happens to be blind, thanks to a childhood incident with firecrackers that still haunts her older sister, Helen (Parker Posey), who feels responsible for the accident. After a brief prologue that establishes the degree to which Sydney has built a successful life and career, we're whisked into an operating theater as she undergoes a double corneal transplant.

The goal: restored sight.

(So why, then, isn't this film called The Eyes, plural? Good question...)

The procedure works, but rather too successfully. After a few days of blurred disorientation, Sydney gradually realizes that some of the people — and things — she now sees aren't really there. Indeed, before savvy filmgoers can even mutter the phrase "I see dead people," Sydney comes to that conclusion all by herself.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Over Her Dead Body: Dead on Arrival

Over Her Dead Body (2008) • View trailer
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and rather needlessly, for profanity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.7.08

Desperate Housewife Eva Longoria Parker must've been truly desperate to grab Over Her Dead Body as a bid for big-screen stardom.

On the other hand, maybe it was the best she could get.
Part-time psychic Ashley (Lake Bell, left), wanting to come clean with Henry
(Paul Rudd) — with whom she has begun a relationship — tries to explain
that she really can see and hear his dead fiancée, Kate (Eva Longoria Parker).
Oh, and Kate can make the parrot talk to Henry. And the parrot's a better
actor than Longoria.

Parker, since Day One the weak link on the popular (if erratic) TV show, can't act. Not a lick. She relies far too heavily on her God-given good looks, apparently believing that they'll conceal her stiff line readings and visible discomfort on camera. She stands awkwardly, displays little (if any) chemistry with anybody else sharing a given scene, and generally looks and sounds like a third-rate weather gal on a small-town local news operation.

But while it's tempting to blame Parker for the ills that infect Over Her Dead Body, she's in good company. Writer/director Jeff Lowell, making his feature directorial debut, is an impressively talentless hack. He shouldn't be allowed to direct traffic, let alone be left in charge of an entire motion picture; his camera set-ups and angles are uninspired, his pacing is dreadful and — most critically — he couldn't coax a credible performance from any of these actors if his life depended on it.

Indeed, Lowell manages the impressive task of making Jason Biggs, a lively cut-up generally completely at ease on camera, look awkward and lost.

As a screenwriter, Lowell's a thief; the premise to Over Her Dead Body is stolen shamelessly from the 1978 Brazilian sex comedy, Dona Flor and her Two Husbands (or its 1982 American remake, Kiss Me Goodbye). But as Lowell's story progresses, it transforms into a blindingly blatant rip-off of Ghost ... so much so that viewers at last week's preview screening audibly proclaimed as much, long before the film concluded.

But perhaps the saddest part of this entire debacle is that Parker is upstaged easily by co-star Lake Bell, who has all the charm, presence, sexiness, physical grace and effortless chemistry that forever eludes our understandably Desperate Housewife.

And Parker doesn't seem to realize this, which makes the whole sorry mess even more tragic.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Taking Flight

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for nudity, sensuality and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.1.08

The blurry, eye-blinking, where-am-I point of view scene has been a cinema cliché for decades, as countless directors have put us briefly into a protagonist's head while s/he struggles to consciousness.
Here's the moment we spend the entire film waiting to see: Claude (Anne
Consigny) holds the completed book that she and Jean-Dominique Bauby
(Mathieu Amalric) have spent painstaking months to "dictate" and transcribe.

The next image is equally inevitable: the gradually sharpening close-up of a smiling lover, a worried doctor or a smirking villain. Then standard movie technique resumes, and we're once again in the land of multiple cameras and standard establishing shots.

Not for director Julian Schnabel.

He opens his new film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, with just such a sequence, as Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric, perhaps remembered as the French information broker in Munich) battles for awareness after having been in a three-week coma. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski — a two-time Academy Award winner, for Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan — metaphorically places his camera inside Bauby's skull; we therefore share the man's disorientation as doctors, nurses and orderlies swim in and out of focus.

But it doesn't stop: Schnabel maintains this harrowing point of view, trapping us within Bauby's head just as he was, in reality, fully cognizant while being entombed within his own body.

This is a true story, and far more faithful to actual fact than most films making that claim these days. Bauby was a 43-year-old author and editor of the leading French magazine, Elle, when he was felled by a massive stroke. All at once, his exciting lifestyle — devoted father to adoring children, loving son to his own aging father, new boyfriend to a sensuous young woman quite typical of his glamorous world — came to an abrupt halt.

Bauby hit one of Fate's cruelest jackpots: He recovered consciousness to learn that he was victimized by an extremely rare condition known as "locked-in syndrome." Almost completely paralyzed, he nonetheless quickly regained his sensibilities but had no way of caring for himself, and almost no way of communicating with the world outside his own thoughts.

He could flutter his left eyelid. That was it.