Friday, March 28, 2008

Stop-Loss: A total loss

Stop-Loss (2008) • View trailer for Stop-Loss
Two stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.28.08
Buy DVD: Stop-Loss 

When settling back to enjoy a film, few things are more aggravating than bad drama that trivializes a legitimate real-world crisis.

Stop-Loss is just such a film.
With everybody including the police, military and even good friends hunting
them down -- not to mention the need to think straight at every turn -- Michele
(Abbie Cornish) and Brandon (Ryan Phillippe) nonetheless find time to stop
at a bar and down quartets of tequila shots, as the third act of this silly drama
grinds toward its preposterous conclusion.

Regardless of one's views on the Iraq war, the accelerating practice of "surprising" soldiers — by retaining them after the completion of their required (and anticipated) term of service, via a sort of "back-door draft" that places them back in harm's way — is unpleasantly sneaky at best, and emotionally shattering at worst. It's the sort of fine-print, loophole behavior that one would expect of a duplicitous used car salesman, rather than U.S. government representatives who should be grateful for services rendered.

I've no doubt a compelling fictionalized story could be told about this practice.

I'm still waiting.

Stop-Loss desperately wants to be that film, but director Kimberly Peirce's script — co-authored with Mark Richard — is insulting, infantile claptrap apparently designed solely for anti-war agitators. I can't really fault the young actors, most of whom do their best with what was presented, but the narrative moves from dumb to dumber until it becomes impossible to accept any part of the story being told.

I hate to say this, but it's precisely the sort of vacuous nonsense I'd expect from an MTV Films production: all hot air, overwrought melodrama and irritating cinematographic technique at the expense of honest emotion or credible writing.

I expected much, much better of Peirce, whose previous film — Boys Don't Cry — was highlighted by gripping acting and a quietly compassionate script that easily could have slid into bathos, but didn't. Peirce demonstrated sensitivity, intelligence and restraint in almost every facet of Boys Don't Cry, qualities wholly absent in this new film.

Star Ryan Phillippe looks right at home, as well he should, having covered similar ground in Clint Eastwood's vastly superior Flags of Our Fathers. Phillippe stars here as Sgt. Brandon King, introduced on duty at a checkpoint in Iraq; he and his squad buddies try to make the best of a bad situation that gets worse quickly, when insurgents fire upon them from a passing car.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

21: Flawed count

21 (2008) • View trailer for 21
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, profanity and brief sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.27.08
Buy DVD: 21 • Buy Blu-Ray: 21 (+ BD Live) [Blu-ray]

This film is as slick, dazzling and superficial as its Las Vegas setting.

Although ostensibly based on the events reported in Ben Mezrich's fascinating book, Bringing Down the House, credulous viewers should be advised that the film's press notes more accurately acknowledge that 21 is inspired by a true story.
When Ben (Jim Sturgess, far left) accepts an invitation for some extracurricular
activities organized by math professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey, far right),
he's astonished to find a blackjack training session already occupied by Vegas
veterans: from left, Fisher (Jacob Pitts), Kianna (Liza Lapira) and Jill (Kate
Bosworth). The goal? Take the casinos for a bundle, thanks to a clever
card-counting scheme.

Which would explain why Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb's script eventually devolves into a Hollywood fairy tale, complete with a ludicrous tag scene that certainly gets the intended laugh, even if it couldn't possibly exist in the real world.

(I suspect Steinfeld and Loeb greatly admire 1983's Risky Business, since I detect an echo of Tom Cruise's concluding speech in their protagonist's final words.)

All of which is a shame, because the first act of director Robert Luketic's captivating little drama feels very real-world. Star Jim Sturgess is spot-on as Ben Campbell, a shy, geeky and quite brilliant MIT student whose acceptance to Harvard Medical School — absolutely his, on the basis of academic merit — is in danger of being derailed because he lacks the money to attend. Sturgess is completely persuasive as an honorable individual with his eye on the prize, who simply cannot understand why years of hard work haven't been enough.

Scenes with his mother (Helen Carey) are heartfelt and sweet; companionable exchanges with his two similarly nerdy best friends (Josh Gad and Sam Golzari) are appropriately outcast-ish. The three bookworms — they've been designing a robotic vehicle for the past year, in anticipation of an annual contest — look yearningly at the cooler guys and hot chicks when enjoying a beer or two at the local watering hole, which is as close to being part of the "in crowd" as they're likely to get.

Then Ben catches the attention of charismatic math professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), who recruits the young man to join his rather unorthodox team of similarly gifted numbers crunchers. Micky and his crew have been taking trips to Vegas for an unspecified amount of time — vague and sloppy details often plague this script — and winning big bucks while playing blackjack with a card-counting scheme.

They're currently short one member, and Micky offers the empty slot to Ben.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Grand Canyon Adventure: Not so grand

Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk (2008)
Three stars (out of five). Rating: Suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.21.08

When director of photography Brad Ohlund gave a slide chat prior to Tuesday's preview screening of Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk — an engaging little speech that, alas, regular movie patrons won't be able to experience — he rather defensively admitted that the film might be perceived as "a little preachy."
Navigating the Colorado River rapids would be difficult enough under ordinary
circumstances, but it's even harder while trying to record the action with a
massive IMAX 3D camera, which must be fastened to the raft and protected
from unnecessary damage. People are only a secondary consideration...


Although graced with the same stunning cinematography that we've come to expect from director Greg MacGillivray's IMAX documentaries — Everest and Adventures in Wild California topping his impressive résumé — his earlier films possessed something conspicuously lacking in Grand Canyon Adventure: a cohesive narrative.

This new film is preachy; at times, the on-camera narrators sound like scolding aunts. But that would be more forgivable if the movie fulfilled the mandate recited by Ohlund: that MacGillivray films are designed to entertain, educate and inspire ... in that order. Grand Canyon Adventure educates, after a fashion, but it certainly doesn't inspire, and it rarely entertains.

Closing-credit admonitions to conserve water by sweeping driveways and purchasing low-flow toilets and shower heads merely reinforce the impression of having sat through a rather uninspiring junior high school public-service film.

And that's a label I've never affixed to a MacGillivray Freeman documentary ... until now.

The film simply bites off more than it can chew. Ohlund spoke passionately Tuesday evening of wanting Grand Canyon Adventure to illuminate the very scary fact that fresh water sources are evaporating all over the world, and that one-fifth of Earth's human population suffers without adequately clean water.

But screenwriters Jack Stephens and Stephen Judson do a very poor job of elaborating on those frightening conditions "all over the world"; aside from a computer-model projection that reveals how one African lake has all but vanished during the previous half-century, we're simply hit with some statistics that lack specific visual proof to grant them greater validity.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Band's Visit: Thoroughly charming

The Band's Visit (2007) • View trailer for The Band's Visit
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too harshly, for fleeing profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.20.08
Buy DVD: The Band's Visit

Ultimately, the universal language of music may be our best chance at salvation.

How short-sighted, then, that when public school budgets hit a crisis — both nationally or locally — the first reflexive response involves cutting all funding for arts and music programs.
Tewfig (Sasson Gabai, far left) and the other seven members of the Alexandria
Ceremonial Police Orchestra find themselves in the middle of nowhere, when a
trip to Israel goes awry due to crossed travel signals. With no idea of what to
do next, and the uncomfortable certainty that language is apt to be rather a
formidable barrier, Tewfig can't imagine how to salvage his band's trip.

Those making such decisions should be strapped to chairs and forced to watch Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirin's The Band's Visit, a charming little drama with a quiet approach but an oh-so-timely message.

Kolirin's simple little story feels as if it was suggested by actual events, but the filmmaker insists not. That merely adds to the movie's charm; the appearance of authenticity makes the narrative's moral point even stronger.

The setting is contemporary. The eight members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, their pastel blue uniforms starched to crisp perfection, arrive in Israel in order to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center. Unfortunately, signals have been crossed; the musicians find themselves at the airport with no sign of their Israeli hosts.

Demonstrating once again that real men never ask for help — no matter what part of the world we're talking about — the stoic and almost comically proud orchestra leader and conductor, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), refuses to contact the Egyptian consulate. Instead, he orders junior member Khaled (Saleh Bakri) to obtain travel directions from a nearby kiosk.

The young man and the station agent work their way through Arabic, Hebrew and even fractured English, and the results prove disastrous: The orchestra members soon find themselves stranded on the outskirts of a microscopic Israeli town at the edge of the desert.

By now, Kolirin has proven to be a master of the understated sight gag. Although the situation, at first blush, isn't remotely funny — imagine an octet of militarily garbed Arabs suddenly dumped into the middle of an Israeli community, no matter how small — the sight of these eight men, their pale blue uniforms such a stark contrast to the barren desert, can't help making us smile.

And with that emotional release, not to mention the wry tone that punctuates every conversation between these men, we immediately understand that this will be a story of inclusiveness, not tragedy.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Horton Hears a Who: Hear ye, hear ye!

Horton Hears a Who (2008) • View trailer for Horton Hears a Who
Four stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.14.08
Buy DVD: Horton Hears a Who • Buy Blu-Ray: Horton Hears a Who! [Blu-ray]

On the 15th of May,

In the jungle of Nool,

In the heat of the day,

In the cool of the pool,
Kangaroo, accustomed to making all the rules in the jungle of Nool, gets quite
put out when Horton the elephant refuses to surrender his clover ... because, as
he insists, it's sheltering a dust mote that is, in turn, home to an entire
microcosmic civilization. And how does he know this? Because every time he
cocks an ear and listens carefully, Horton hears a Who!

He was splashing —

Enjoying the jungle's great joys —

When Horton the elephant

Heard a small noise.

I can think of no higher compliment to pay directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, than to say that their big-screen adaptation of Horton Hears a Who looks, sounds and feels like a Dr. Seuss book come to life ... or, better still, like a film Theodor Geisel would have made himself, had he embraced the film medium (and been given a gazillion-dollar budget).

But then I shouldn't be surprised, because Blue Sky Studios — famed for its deservedly popular Ice Age franchise — is, along with Pixar, one of the few contemporary animation houses that understands the need to make story and voice performance as important as the eye-popping visuals.

In this case, scripters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio have skillfully expanded upon the original children's picture-book, and done so with such finesses that you'll be hard-pressed to determine where Dr. Seuss' original rhyming prose — half a century old at this point, but still sounding fresh — yields to 21st century embellishment (although I'll bet most 5-year-olds could tell you).

And as if to remind us that Dr. Seuss is best enjoyed when read aloud, narrator Charles Osgood interrupts the on-screen action every so often, just to remind us of where we are in the captivating narrative.

Many of Dr. Seuss' books have an important moral; Horton Hears a Who comes with several. Indeed, hearing our pachyderm protagonist insist that "a person's a person, no matter how small" carries even more weight these days, with so many people feeling disenfranchised by political and corporate monoliths. We all need a protective Horton in our lives.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: Absolutely delightful

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008) • View trailer for Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for plenty of innuendo and fleeing nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.13.08
Buy DVD: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

One impeccably timed performance in a comedy is a treasure.

Two are a revelation.

After being dragged along to a high-society fashion show, the still shabbily
dressed Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand, left) -- painfully aware of
how much she doesn't fit these surroundings -- wonders how much longer she
can pull off her charade as "social secretary" to irrepressible American singer
Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams).

Watching Frances McDormand and Amy Adams spar in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is akin to sitting courtside during a fast-paced tennis match between champions: Both actresses work their considerable talents to the max, as if each scene were a competition.

But there are no losers here, and we viewers are the winners: This cleverly retro farce is delightful from start to finish, and you'll not be able to take your eyes off McDormand or Adams. Indeed, when both share the screen — which happens quite frequently — it's difficult to know who to watch. Both spice their performances with carefully composed body English and hilarious little bits of business: a tilt of the head here, a calculated pause and raised eyebrow there.

To borrow from a Cole Porter song that'd be right at home in this environment, the result is de-lovely.

Although feeling very much like a transplanted stage comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day actually is based on a 1938 novel by Winifred Watson, a British author whose sexually charged book — no doubt a revelation for forward-thinking women of her day — must've raised more than a few eyebrows. The novel is practically a blueprint for a pre-WWII Hollywood screwball comedy, and I'm amazed it hasn't been adapted until now.

Director Bharat Nalluri — a veteran of recent, top-notch British TV shows such as Spooks, Hustle and Life on Mars — embraces the material as though born to the genre. Working from a finely tuned script by David Magee (Finding Neverland) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), Nalluri guides his talented cast through a fast-paced adult fairy tale that balances its witty dialogue and hilarious plot complications with the real menace of England's impending war with Germany.

Composer Paul Englishby delivers a rollicking, jazz-hued soundtrack that perfectly evokes the era; the result — very much in the mold of Anne Dudley's main theme to the beloved British TV series, Jeeves and Wooster — saucily punctuates this naughty mix of ethical dilemmas and bedroom hijinks.

The story takes place in 1939 London, on the eve of what savvy citizens know is the ramp-up to another nightmare. Times are hard, emotions are high, and jobs are hard to come by; the stuffy gatekeeper at an employment agency therefore is disinclined to help when middle-age governess Guinevere Pettigrew (McDormand) is sacked from yet another placement.

Friday, March 7, 2008

10,000 B.C.: Too primitive

10,000 B.C. (2008) • View trailer for 10,000 B.C.
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and perhaps too harshly, for prehistoric action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.7.08
Buy DVD: 10,000 B.C. • Buy Blu-Ray: 10,000 B.C. [Blu-ray]

I don't care if the screenwriters are trying to be historically accurate; this movie needs dinosaurs.

After falling into a pit trap, D'Leh (Steven Strait) discovers that he's sharing it
with a greatly annoyed saber-toothed tiger. But the tiger is entangled as well,
and — against his better judgment — our young hero decides to free the beast
and hope that it won't devour him.

Or it needs something. I'd settle for Raquel Welch or Carole Landis.

That's the primary issue: Despite all the golly-gee-wow technology that turns its third act into a breathtaking visual spectacle, the story at the heart of 10,000 B.C. is so retro that it creaks as badly as its juvenile "Me Tarzan, you Jane" dialogue. The special effects notwithstanding, I'd have to say that both 1940's One Million B.C. (with Landis) and 1966's One Million Years B.C. (Welch) were far more entertaining.

Like George Lucas before him, director Roland Emmerich has based his career on re-invigorating Hollywood's golden age of action-adventure serials. Emmerich's early efforts were impressive: Stargate made enough of a splash with genre geeks that it spawned not just one but two TV shows, one of which continues even now; Independence Day was a hell-for-leather riff on War of the Worlds that proved far more fun than Steven Spielberg's way-too-serious remake of the H.G. Wells classic.

Heck, I even enjoyed Emmerich's update of Godzilla, a film that probably would have been far more successful if Sony hadn't tried to persuade us that it was the cinematic equivalent of the Second Coming.

But Emmerich's spectacle began to outstrip his story sense with The Day After Tomorrow, which played like one of the hokey disaster flicks so popular in the 1970s and '80s.

And while 10,000 B.C. isn't quite a disaster, it's also nothing to write home about. Calling this prehistoric ramble "dull" probably overstates the case, but the film takes a long, long time to reach its conclusion.

The primary faults lie both with the script and the starring players. The former — credited to Emmerich and Harald Kloser — is insufferably primitive and simplistic; the latter scarcely register on the screen. Thank goodness for New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis, who makes a strong impression as the seasoned warrior who guides our callow protagonist; absent his involvement, we probably wouldn't care about any of these characters.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Semi-Pro: Pro-foundly awful

Semi-Pro (2008) • View trailer for Semi-Pro
One star (out of five). Rating: R, for relentless profanity and sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.6.08
Buy DVD: Semi-Pro • Buy Blu-Ray: Semi-Pro [Blu-ray]

Five minutes into Semi-Pro, I became convinced that this film had been a victim of the writers strike, and that the cast had been told to improvise every line.

And had done spectacularly poorly.
While rehearsing for his team's next deranged half-time performance, owner
Jackie Moon (Will Ferrell, right) is surprised and disappointed to discover
that newcomer Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson) has been "promoted" to head
coach by all the other players.

But no: Scot Armstrong (Old School) was paid real money to "write" this un-script, as relentless — and pointless — a barrage of profanity and potty humor as we've seen since Matt Stone and Trey Parker unleashed the nonstop raunch of 2004's Team America: World Police.

Is Hollywood the land of opportunity, or what?

I struggle to believe that maybe, somehow, dismaying garbage such as this qualifies as male bonding humor for arrested adolescents swilling beer in frat houses. After all, plenty of people seem to be entertained by "reality" TV train-wrecks such as Big Brother; Semi-Pro is just as fascinating from the standpoint of being jaw-droppingly dreadful.

But even by the already low standards set by Will Ferrell's earlier moron comedies — Talladega Nights and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy come to mind — this one's pretty thin gruel. Like Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence before him, Ferrell has come to believe that his fans will watch anything, so there's no need to try very hard.

One hopes the fans in question will rebel — and soon — just as they did with Murphy and Lawrence.

Semi-Pro takes its almost-plot from a thin veneer of sports fact. Not all that long ago, two basketball leagues existed in these grand United States: the NBA we still know and love, and the renegade American Basketball Association, which lasted nine seasons from 1967 through 1976. The ABA was the colorful rogue league, known for its red, white and blue basketballs and P.T. Barnum-esque promotions. Anything that could get more fans into seats was considered fair game.

League rivalry got pretty bitter, and the situation finally was resolved when four ABA teams — the New York Nets, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs — were folded into the NBA. The remaining ABA teams were disbanded, along with the league itself.

So much for the history lesson.

Ferrell stars here as Jackie Moon, a one-song musical wonder who parlayed the money made from his sultry hit, "Love Me Sexy," into ownership of the ABA Tropics, based in Michael Moore's beloved Flint, Mich. When not inflicting audiences with his song — a spoof of the sensuous ballads made famous by Barry White and his Love Unlimited Orchestra — Jackie takes the hands-on approach to team ownership; he's also coach and star power forward.