Friday, April 25, 2008

Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? -- Fool's quest?

Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? (2008) • View trailer for Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.25.08
Buy DVD: Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?

During World War II, the beloved Warner Bros. cartoon characters joined the propaganda effort in a series of wincingly hilarious shorts that were so caustic and racist that they tend to be repressed in these more enlightened times.
No matter how dire their circumstances, most of the people encountered by
Morgan Spurlock, far right, insist on sharing a meal while chatting about their
lives and hopes — and their view of terrorists who cite religious convictions.

Back then, though, cartoons such as Confessions of a Nutzy Spy, Tokio Jokio and (ouch) Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips served a legitimate purpose: They belittled — and therefore cut down to size — an essentially faceless enemy that had, in the minds of frightened Americans, become larger than life.

Puncture the bully's balloon, and suddenly he's not so ferocious.

Documentarian Morgan Spurlock, fresh from his impressive battle with the fast food industry in Super Size Me, now has set his sights on the world's most notorious terrorist, in Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? Spurlock's intentions are good, but the results are uneven at best.

The lessons also aren't as eye-opening; it's hard to forget the striking image of all those bags of sugar, which represented Spurlock's intake of the sweet stuff during a month of binge-burgering. No single scene in this new film resonates as well.

Since the events of Super Size Me, the filmmaker has married then-girlfriend Alex, the counter-culture vegan who played such an important role during Morgan's month-long ordeal with burgers, fries and soft drinks.

Alex's developing pregnancy is just as crucial a part of Where in the World as her husband's journey of discovery about Bin Laden, which takes him to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestine, Morocco and Jordan.

His film's title notwithstanding, Spurlock hasn't any more expectation of actually finding Bin Laden than Michael Moore had of obtaining an audience with General Motors chairman Roger Smith, in 1989's Roger & Me. The point is the trip itself, and the people encountered along the way.

Spurlock also skewers U.S. arrogance, although generally with the sort of wink and nod that makes such an attitude more palatable.

"If I've learned anything from more than 30 years of movie-watching," he says, prior to embarking on his journey, "it's that if the world needs saving, it's best done by one lonely guy, willing to face danger head-on, and take it down, action-hero style."

Spurlock knows what we think of Bin Laden and al-Qaida; he wants to learn what families, journalists, rug merchants and other everyday civilians think of the terrorist in the countries that birthed, shaped and continue to nurture him and his followers.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Counterfeiters: Hobson's choice

The Counterfeiters (2007) • View trailer for The Counterfeiters
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, profanity and nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.24.08
Buy DVD: The Counterfeiters • Buy Blu-Ray: The Counterfeiters (+ BD Live) [Blu-ray]

All these years later, the Holocaust still reveals grim and fascinating stories.

And fresh stories of triumph, as well.
Maste forger Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics, second from left) is
dismayed to discover that the idealistic Adolf Burger (August Diehl, far left) is
sabotaging the faked American dollars produced by a team of incarcerated Jews
that includes Atze (Veit Stubner, second from right) and Dr. Klinger (August

The victory isn't immediately apparent in The Counterfeiters, the Austrian/ German co-production that just took the best foreign film Academy Award. Writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky's compelling tale reminds us that heroes come in unusual packages, and that the greatest drama occurs when a single human being sets aside a lifetime of self-interest for an act that serves the greater good.

Ruzowitzky's film is both a complex character study and a fairly straightforward depiction of an extraordinarily clever — if all but forgotten — Nazi scheme that, if more successful, could have prolonged the war in Germany's favor. Although not entirely a failure, the plan did not unfold quickly enough to prevent Germany's defeat in 1945, and the credit for this spiritual triumph belongs to a cluster of incarcerated Jews who had been hand-picked for a most unusual work detail.

The film actually focuses on one man: Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), based as precisely as possible on real-life Russian-Jewish artist Salomon Smolianoff, one of the most notorious forgers of art and money in his day. After a brief prologue, the narrative unfolds as an extended flashback that begins in Berlin in 1936, where Sorowitsch moves casually in a world of swindlers, gigolos and loose women.

He's ruthlessly pragmatic, caring nothing for the rise of Nazi brutality or what it means to his own people; he demands top payment for every passport he forges for a Jew trying to flee the country. But like all those who believe themselves too smart, Sorowitsch gets careless: A lingering dalliance with a beautiful woman results in his being captured by the Nazi secret police.

The arresting officer, Inspector Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow), clearly admires Sorowitsch's skill and panache, but of course that doesn't change matters.

Initially sent to a typical concentration camp, Soro-witsch intelligently reveals his artistic skills and becomes something of a personal artist for the vain SS officers. He thus survives for several years before an unexpected transfer to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Sorowitsch is re-united with Herzog, now promoted and in charge of "Operation Bernhard," a counterfeiting operation on an enormous scale. The goal: to design and mass-produce first British pounds, and then U.S. dollars, in order to weaken the economies of both countries.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom: Crowning Joy

The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) • View trailer for The Forbidden Kingdom
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and too harshly, for fantasy violence and martial-arts action
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.18.08
Buy DVD: The Forbidden Kingdom • Buy Blu-Ray: The Forbidden Kingdom (2-Disc Special Edition) [Blu-ray]

Fun, fun, fun.

American attempts to reproduce the stylized atmosphere of Hong Kong martial arts epics usually fail miserably; most Hollywood writers and directors simply cannot match the blend of fantasy, archetypal characters, luxuriously choreographed battle scenes and — most important — the whimsical humor that must not devolve into camp burlesque.
Contemporary American teen Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano, center) is
wholly out of his element after a magical journey to ancient China. And he very
nearly doesn't survive the martial arts "training session" implemented by his
two new friends: the Silent Monk (Jet Li, left) and Lu Yan (Jackie Chan).

Quentin Tarantino gets it, as he demonstrated during sections of his Kill Bill opus.

So do director Rob Minkoff and scripter John Fusco.

Their collaboration on The Forbidden Kingdom has resulted in an opulent Asian fairy tale that's right at home with the genre's classics, many of which are lovingly referenced during a clever title credits sequence that incorporates images and typography from vintage chop-socky movie posters. Indeed, it's easy to imagine that, once upon a time, Minkoff and Fusco spent their formative years in the sort of room occupied by their story's young hero, with every square inch of space occupied by martial arts posters, action figures, DVDs and other memorabilia.

Clearly, they live and breathe this stuff, and we're the richer for their genre awareness.

On top of which, this film finally provides the match-up long anticipated by hungry fans: the shared screen billing of Jackie Chan and Jet Li. And yes, they fight each other — only once, and quite spectacularly — before recognizing, in the best tradition of impetuous comic book superheroes, that they're actually on the same side.

The story:

While haunting his favorite Chinatown pawnshop in the hopes of finding yet another bootleg kung-fu DVD, Chicago teen Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano) stumbles across a strange and oddly compelling staff. The wizened shop owner mumbles something about guarding it until an individual foretold by prophecy arrives, to help return it to its rightful owner.

Then comes the lapse in judgment: Our young hero is forced by a gang of local thugs to return to the shop later that evening, to help them get inside in order to rob the place. Jason's involvement in this invasion, with its unexpectedly violent climax, is the script's sole misstep: a moral lapse that demands a level of atonement never really addressed in the rest of the film.

Suddenly fleeing a gun- toting thug, Jason grabs the staff ... and is shocked when it literally drags him into another time and place.

Astonished to find himself in ancient China, Jason very nearly doesn't last an hour, as he's attacked by soldiers in the service of the powerful — and quite evil — Jade Warlord (Collin Chou). Our misplaced Chicago teen survives only thanks to the intervention of Lu Yan (Jackie Chan, channeling his character from the Drunken Master films), a seasoned warrior who disguises his prowess beneath the bedraggled appearance of a seemingly wine-besotted beggar.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall: Mildly memorable

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) • View trailer for Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, nudity and sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.17.08
Buy DVD: Forgetting Sarah Marshall • Buy Blu-Ray: Forgetting Sarah Marshall [Blu-ray]

As guilty pleasures go, this one's pretty funny.

Occasionally tasteless and frequently vulgar, but undeniably funny.
The resort isn't that large, so this result was inevitable: Peter (Jason Segel,
center) and new companion Rachel (Mila Kunis, left) arrive at the hotel
restaurant at the same time as Peter's ex-girlfriend, Sarah (Kristen Bell) and her
new boyfriend, Aldous (Russell Brand). Worse yet, only one table is
available. And if the women are looking daggers at each other, that, too, is

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is another scattershot burlesque from Judd Apatow and Shauna Robertson (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad), the producers who seem determined to build an empire on romantic disaster comedies, the way John Hughes cornered the sensitive teen market back in the 1980s.

I'm not sure this is a particularly lofty goal, but it seems to be working for them; one cannot argue with box-office results.

And, truth be told, Apatow and Robertson's films, for all their crassness, boast several key elements wholly absent from the similar oeuvre of, say, the Farrelly brothers (who most recently uncorked their gawdawful remake of The Heartbreak Kid). Apatow's suffering male protagonists always remain sympathetic, despite their lesser qualities, and they try to do right by the women in their lives (even while frequently screwing things up).

Most important, though, the women in Apatow/Robertson comedies aren't mere sex toys, nor are they crippled by belittling and offensive character traits. They're just as sensitive and sympathetic, if equally inclined to make a bad situation worse. (Honestly, watching a Farrelly brothers relationship train wreck, I always get the impression the filmmakers hate the fair sex.)

Recall the hilarious, often misplaced dignity that Steve Carell brought to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and you'll have a good sense of what to expect in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

The star this time is Jason Segel, one of Apatow's familiar repertory players, going all the way back to TV's Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. Segel also wrote the script, which he clearly fashioned to his own strengths.

He plays Peter Bretter, a conflicted musician who has made the most of a six-year relationship with way-famous Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell, late of the still lamented Veronica Mars), star of a successful TV series titled Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime.

The occasional glimpses we get of this obvious riff on the CSI franchise, as Bell and on-camera co-star William Baldwin wisecrack their way through various ghastly murder investigations, are a stitch.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Street Kings: Dethroned

Street Kings (2008) • View trailer for Street Kings
Two stars (out of five). Rating: R, for pervasive violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.11.08
Buy DVD: Street Kings • Buy Blu-Ray: Street Kings (+ Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]

Street Kings is a movie for folks who thought the characters in 2001's Training Day were too genteel.
Santos (Amaury Nolasco, left) and Demille (John Corbett, right) are visibly
disappointed that their partner, Ludlow (Keanu Reeves), has left them nobody
to kill, in a typical scene from this tawdry cop flick. And let us remember:
These are the good guys. Don't you feel safer?

If Joseph Wambaugh has devoted his career to exploring the psyches of flawed but noble police officers, James Ellroy has been much more intrigued by the unredeemable corruption of those granted the privileges that come with a badge. Both novelists wonder whether inherently decent men can survive a polluted system with their integrity intact: Wambaugh generally holds out hope, whereas Ellroy obviously has none whatsoever.

Factor in a director — David Ayer — who views South Central Los Angeles as a war zone, and the result is quite bleak and distasteful.

But even that would be tolerable, if Ayer were willing to explore the topic with any degree of credibility. Alas, Street Kings isn't drama; it's overwrought burlesque, littered with giggling psychopaths on both sides of the equation. These characters shoot first and don't bother with the questions.

We got a taste of the Ayer/ Ellroy mentality with 2002's Dark Blue, an equally ludicrous tale of bent cops gone from bad to worse. Apparently determined to sully the LAPD badge even further, we're once again thrown onto these mean streets, expected (as viewers) to buy into macho nonsense where vile cops are so far gone that they don't even watch out for each other.

On top of which, Ayer is a lousy director. His film has no sense of time and place; the action within this story might be unfolding within hours, days or even weeks. He extracts truly dreadful and overwrought performances from just about everybody in the cast; every line of hard-bitten dialogue emerges from teeth so firmly clenched that the actors must worry about long-term lockjaw.

Indeed, Ayer manages the impossible: He makes Forest Whitaker look and sound like a bad actor.

Goodness, Whitaker even managed to escape from Vantage Point with his integrity intact, and that film's also a mess. Here, though, his line readings are shrill and hysterical, his eyes literally popping out of his skull; he looks for all the world like a junkie in desperate need of his next fix.

And we're supposed to accept Whitaker as a police captain on the rise, with visions of being anointed LAPD's master chief?


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Nim's Island: Hero worship

Nim's Island (2008) • View trailer for Nim's Island
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for mild fantasy peril
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.10.08
Buy DVD: Nim's Island • Buy Blu-Ray: Nim's Island [Blu-ray]

Living alone on an uncharted island, surrounded by unusually communicative animal friends, used to be enough fancy for any kid.

Today's child, however, has loftier ambitions: being the namesake of a hitherto undiscovered species of micro-organism.
Most little girls would spend their free time chatting with friends or hanging
out at the nearest mall; Nim (Abigail Breslin) enjoys dancing with Selkie, her
400-pound pet sea lion. Our young heroine's tropical existence is the stuff of
dreams ... that is, until Mother Nature unleashes a rather nasty nightmare.

But, then, Nim is no ordinary little girl.

She's the remarkably resourceful 11-year-old heroine of Wendy Orr's charming novel, which has made an equally engaging leap to the big screen under the capable hands of husband-and-wife directing team Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett. The resulting film is equal parts Swiss Family Robinson and A Little Princess, with a clever side story involving a best-selling author whose brawny, macho series hero couldn't be less like his creator.

Nim's Island represents another hit for Walden Media, which has produced an impressive string of films based on popular children's books, from Holes and Hoot to Charlotte's Web and Bridge to Terabithia. All these movies have been marked by intelligent scripts, a captivating and often whimsical directorial touch and — most important — respect for the source material.

Nim's Island is no different. The cast chews enthusiastically into these larger- than-life characters, while remaining grounded just enough to allow easy audience identification.

Levin and Flackett also maintain a stylized atmosphere, with occasional touches of old-fashioned animation, to convey the sense that this adventure unfolds precisely the way its young protagonist might have put words to paper herself.

Our feisty heroine (Abigail Breslin) lives with her scientist father, Jack (Gerard Butler), on an island known to nobody, and that's the way they like it.

They want for nothing; solar panels provide electricity, computers give contact with the outside world, and occasional supply ships bring the hard goods that they can't grow or fabricate themselves.

The most recent carton includes the newest book detailing the adventures of Nim's favorite literary hero: Alex Rover, the world's greatest adventurer (a delightfully camped-up, kid-oriented riff on Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt).

While devouring the cliff-hanging chapters, Nim imagines herself into the action; the film obligingly responds with an ingenious battle between Rover and some baddies on faraway desert sands, with the fisticuffs taking place on either side of the little girl's bed.

Right there, we know Levin and Flackett have just the right touch for this story.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Leatherheads: Football frolic

Leatherheads (2008) • View trailer for Leatherheads
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too harshly, for mild profanity and football action
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.4.08
Buy DVD: Leatherheads • Buy Blu-Ray: Leatherheads [Blu-ray]

Although ostensibly a period romp set in the rough 'n' tumble world of nascent professional football, Leatherheads also is a perceptive parable on the importance of heroes.
Duluth Bulldogs player Dodge Connolly (George Clooney, right) persuades
ruthless businessman CC Frazier (Jonathan Pryce, center) to move golden boy
Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski) from his college ball
environment, thus giving the young man a chance to make money while
playing the game he loves. The deal is observed quietly by Chicago Tribune
reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), who knows something the
others don't ... and wonders how best to use this information.

That's a pretty weighty topic for a film that has been marketed as a frivolous romantic comedy, which is all to the good. Credit first-time screenwriters and Sports Illustrated veterans Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, who've become minor legends for the perseverance they've displayed while pitching this project for two decades (!).

Credit director and star George Clooney, as well, for recognizing the script's potential.

At first blush, Leatherheads is a retro homage to classic screwball comedies of the late 1930s and early '40s, most notably director Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday, since this new film boasts a similar romantic triangle anchored by a tough-talking female reporter — that would be Renée Zellweger's Lexie Littleton — with strong echoes of Rosalind Russell's Hildy Johnson.

Clooney's rat-a-tat verbal exchanges with Zellweger are to die for, with both performers making the most of crackerjack dialogue, raised eyebrows, pursed lips and impeccably timed double (and even triple) takes.

The story, set in 1925, begins during an average day for the Duluth Bulldogs, a typical "professional" football team composed of rough, foul-mouthed and quick-tempered players who delight in their ability to win through guile, trickery or outright cheating. Actually, "cheating" rather overstates the case, since this fledgling sport exists in a realm without rules or codes of conduct, and often is played on weed-strewn fields not entirely bereft of livestock.

The Bulldogs are more or less led by Dodge Connolly (Clooney), smart enough to see the writing on the wall: Their free-for-all games attract no more than family members and a smattering of loud, drunk fans who'd never dream of spending more than a pittance to attend.

College football, on the other hand, is an entirely different critter: The games are better regulated and held in gorgeous stadiums, and they attract thousands of well-behaved fans. That's particularly true of games that feature rising star Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski, of TV's The Office), a golden-boy WWI hero coasting on his larger-than-life feat of having forced an entire squadron of German soldiers to surrender. Single-handedly, no less.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Married Life: Rather unhappy

Married Life (2008) • View trailer for Married Life
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and rather harshly, for disquieting plot elements
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.3.08
Buy DVD: Married Life • Buy Blu-Ray: Married Life (+ BD Live) [Blu-ray]

Married Life isn't tastelessly whimsical enough to be taken as a black comedy, but it's also too arch to be regarded as a serious psychological drama.

Blame director/co-writer Ira Sachs, who can't seem to make up his mind.
Having been introduced to Kay (Rachel McAdams), his very married best
friend's lover on the side, the swinish Richard (Pierce Brosnan) decides that he
wants this enchanting creature for himself. He thus begins taking her out on
the town; Kay's enjoyment of this new attention naturally calls her intentions
into question. Ultimately, though, these characters — and all the others in
this film — are too blasé for us to care one way or the other.

The problem also can be traced to Pierce Brosnan, whose raised-eyebrow performance and mordant off-camera narration belong in another film. (Let's face it: Nobody smirks like Brosnan.) Every appearance of his deviously roguish character hints at snarky behavior to come, but he's the only one operating in that realm.

Co-stars Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson and Rachel McAdams remain resolutely straight, and we wait in vain for some ingenious plot twists to erupt in the third act.

But they never come.

Indeed, enduring this increasingly dull and dour film to its bitter conclusion produces nothing but disappointment: We slogged through all that for this?

Sachs and co-writer Oren Moverman, adapting a little-known novel by John Bingham — whose major claim to fame, these days, was to have served as the real-life model for John Le Carre's George Smiley — apparently wish to establish a premise and then build a level of playful suspense that Alfred Hitchcock would have admired. They never quite succeed; these characters are too staid to generate any tension.

And despite ample directorial inferences, they're ultimately revealed to have no hidden depths whatsoever: They're merely what they seem ... which isn't all that interesting.

The setting is the late 1940s; the tale is told by Richard (Brosnan), whose off-stage observations are an immediate clue that he's relating the story after the fact. His tone is mildly irreverent; our curiosity is piqued.

Richard's best friend, Harry (Cooper), has been happily married to Pat (Clarkson) for years. They've built a home, a family and a life together. He's some sort of unspecified executive: successful if colorless. She's a housewife: perhaps too intelligent to be content sitting around a house all day, but she accepts her lot uncomplainingly.

The era and general atmosphere seem to have been lifted from a John Cheever story: Everybody dresses too well (even under casual circumstances) and smokes too much, and cocktails are de rigueur after a day at the office, or when friends come over for dinner. Production designer Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski really nails the oppressively whitebread, Leave It to Beaver ambiance: that exaggeration of "normal" intended to conceal darker behavior.