Friday, May 30, 2008

Sex and the City: Cash and Carrie

Sex and the City (2008) • View trailer for Sex and the City
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, vulgarity, nudity and sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.30.08
Buy DVD: Sex and the City • Buy Blu-Ray: Sex and the City: The Movie [Blu-ray]

Samantha no doubt would disagree, but I’m afraid there is such a thing as too much Sex.

Although longtime executive producer and Sex and the City series writer Michael Patrick King both wrote and directed this big-screen continuation of the hit HBO comedy/drama — and while I’ve no doubt this film will be the bee’s knees for legions of adoring fans — the long-awaited result is self-indulgent and somewhat irritating.
When Samantha (Kim Cattrall, far left) attends an auction with the intention of
purchasing one particular piece, she and her longtime gal pals — from left,
Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Charlotte (Kristin
Davis) — are dismayed to see another person bidding quite aggressively for
the same item.

Self-indulgent because, at a thumping 145 minutes, this film is almost half a season’s worth of the half-hour TV episodes.

Somewhat irritating because, having left everybody — the show’s characters and us fans — in a happy place when the series rode off into the New York City sunset in February 2004, King rains on everybody’s parade by screwing up key relationships.

Yep, Carrie and Big are on the outs. Again.

And so are Miranda and Steve.

And so are Samantha and Smith.


The always witty and hilariously smutty dialogue aside, one expects better than tired, predictable melodrama from a franchise with such a smart pedigree. This movie feels driven more by studio greed than a need for further explore these characters.

I recall being similarly annoyed (on a much more superficial level) when, having brought Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson into each other’s loving arms at the conclusion of Spider-Man 2, that series’ producers decided the only way they could obtain dramatic tension for the third film was to rip them apart again.

This is the tried-and-true tactic of afternoon soap operas, where plot developments emerge less from the logic of established characters and their distinctive behavior, and more because some idiot decides to throw a spanner into the gears.

While it’s genuinely delightful to see Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Charlotte (Kristin Davis), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Samantha (Kim Cattrall) once again strutting their Manhattan streets in search of labels, by rights — and by six seasons, and 94 episodes of the series — they should have gotten the other “L” (love) worked out by now.

Indeed, they did get it worked out. We saw it happen back in early 2004, when Carrie abandoned her ill-advised Parisian fantasy and allowed Big (Chris Noth) to sweep her back into his arms.

And when Miranda finally came to terms with her admittedly unusual but still emotionally satisfying relationship with Steve (David Eigenberg).

And particularly when Samantha came to terms with her cancer, and the debilitating effects of chemo, and watched in amazement as Smith (Jason Lewis) not only stood by her, but delivered quite possibly the most swooningly romantic “bouquet” in the history of such gestures.

Charlotte, for her part, had found true happiness a bit sooner than her friends, in the devoted arms of Harry (Evan Handler), her amazingly sweet and satisfying husband.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: Magic Kingdom

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and a few grody death scenes
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.23.08
Buy DVD: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull • Buy Blu-Ray: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull [Blu-ray]

Two decades have passed since 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but if it really took this long for George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford to be satisfied with the script for Indy's long-awaited fourth film adventure, the gestation time has been well-spent.
After breaking free from their captors, Mutt (Shia LaBeouf, left), Indy (Harrison
Ford) and Marion (Karen Allen) commandeer a truck and crash through the
Peruvian jungle, determined to catch up to the Soviet villains who've abducted
a friend and a priceless relic that supposedly has extraordinary powers.

David Koepp's screenplay is all things to all people: It properly respects the fans and acknowledges Indy's roots while examining — and gently spoofing — the character through an entirely fresh set of (youthful) eyes. That aside, one also must be impressed by a script that covers everything from atomic bomb test sites and the 1950s communist witch hunt to Area 51, Peru's Nazca lines and Erich von Däniken's "Chariots of the Gods."

Toss in a marvelously fiendish villain with an unstoppable man-mountain sidekick, and the result is a welcome return to the light-hearted, thrill-a-minute exploits found in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ... absent the many mistakes that so badly compromised the original trilogy's middle entry, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

So, the heck with those who may have worried that Indy — and Harrison Ford — were past their prime; when Lucas and Spielberg are at the top of their game, as they are here, movie lovers are in great hands.

I suspect even today's jaded, "show me" teens will be impressed by several sequences.

After an eyeblink credits sequence that makes droll sport of the Paramount studio logo, the story kicks into gear as a kidnapped Indy (Ford) and new sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone) are dragged to a setting that can't help making fans smile: the never-officially titled "warehouse" where the Ark of the Covenant was placed for storage, at the conclusion of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The year is 1957, and a new set of Soviet enemies — led by the icy-cold Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) — wants one carefully crated item from this massive storage facility.

At the end of Raiders, we only got a glimpse of this warehouse's labyrinthine interior. This time around, Koepp and Spielberg take us inside and stage the first action sequence within its walls.

What can I say? It's fan-geek heaven.

Although he survives this first skirmish, Indy isn't able to prevent Spalko from escaping with the coveted item. This creates problems back at Marshall College, where FBI agents — annoyed by the way Indy "helped" Soviet spies infiltrate a U.S. military base — question our hero's loyalty and order him removed from his teaching position. Longtime friend and colleague Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent) resigns in protest, but it does no good: Indy has lost his ability to teach, the one thing he loves best.

The only solution: to find Spalko, recover the missing whatzis and clear his name.

Mere child's play, for the whip-wielding hero who makes all his moves to John Williams' stirring orchestral fanfares.

Son of Rambow: This Son also rises

Son of Rambow (2007) • View trailer for Son of Rambow
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for underage smoking and profanity, and youthful bad behavior
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.29.08
Buy DVD: Son of Rambow • Buy Blu-Ray: Son of Rambow [Blu-ray]

I often wonder why some parents seem to have repressed the casual cruelties of childhood.

Why else would they stack the deck so badly against their own kids?
When one of their home-grown "special effects" — a dog statue fastened to a
massive kite — is carried off by a particularly strong gust of wind, it drags an
increasingly frantic Lee (Will Poulter, left) and Will (Bill Milner) along in its

Bad enough that 11-year-old Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) has been saddled with such an impossible label by parents who clearly invented the surname as one of the tenets of their overly repressive, whacked-out approach to religion. But then Will's mother — his father having died unexpectedly, years earlier — sends him to public school with strict admonitions against being exposed to any sort of music or television, again due to the puritanical teachings of "The Brethren."

That means Will has to leave his classroom — and sit, isolated, in the hallway — every time the teacher shows an educational film.

Small wonder the boy has taken refuge in his imagination, and has meticulously scribbled flip-book images and other colorful drawings in the margins and every inch of white space of his massive Bible.

The setting is the depressed working-class England of 1982. Writer/director Garth Jennings deftly sketches this portrait of a lost and lonely little boy in the opening scenes of Son of Rambow, a movie whose goofy title — while absolutely appropriate — gives little indication of the bittersweet joys to be contained within.

Deliberately filmed with a low-tech style that mimics the story soon to be told, Jennings' charming, frequently hilarious and often heartbreaking coming-of-age saga bears strong echoes of other gleefully eccentric films that came out at roughly the time this story is set: 1981's Gregory's Girl and 1985's My Life As a Dog.

Will's home life is sepulchral: The house is quiet as a tomb, he shares his bedroom with an infirm grandmother, and his younger sister has naught but jigsaw puzzles for entertainment. All three of these women dress as if they live in an Amish community, and Will's mother (Jessica Stevenson) has an unhealthy willingness to take her marching orders from Joshua (Neil Dudgeon), a member of The Brethren who clearly wishes to become part of this fractured family.

Everything changes in a heartbeat for Will one day, when one of his enforced school hallway sojourns causes him to be noticed by the institution's rebellious tear- away, Lee Carter (Will Poulter).

Aggressively disliked by everybody and clearly proud of the mischief he creates, Lee sees Will as an easy mark for persecution ... but, oddly, that particular desire fades rather quickly in the larger, much more aggressive boy.

Will's too trusting, too easy a target. More to the point, Will's so delighted to have been noticed by anybody that he immediately regards "Lee Carter" — Will always uses the other boy's full name — as a friend, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

And that, Lee quickly realizes, is far more valuable than a victim.

We soon discover that Lee's behavior is a product of similar loneliness: He lives with his contemptuous older brother, Lawrence (Ed Westwick), in the lavish back rooms of a massive estate mostly used as a home for the elderly. Lawrence has no time for Lee, just as their rich, jet-setting (and forever absent) parents have no time for either son.

Lee spends all his home time serving as cook, cleaner and general dogsbody for his brother, whom he worships ... a fact that doesn't seem to register with Lawrence, who delights solely in ordering the punk kid about.

Such orders include sneaking a bulky video camera (1982, remember) into a movie theater and bringing home an illegal bootleg copy of First Blood. But the movie inspires Lee in an entirely different direction; he decides to "borrow" the camera — Lawrence never pays attention anyway — and make his own homegrown adaptation.

Will, for his part, chances to see the entire film while visiting Lee's home for the first time. To say that it changes the boy's life would be an understatement; of all the flicks to serve as his entry to pop culture, this one doesn't just open his eyes. It sears his very brain, as if somebody had forced a branding iron into his head.

And he cheerfully agrees to be the star of Lee's fledgling movie ... which obviously means sneaking out of the house, ditching services with The Brethren and breathing not a word of such behavior to his mother.

These early sequences are hilarious, as Lee fabricates ever-more-dangerous stunts to inflict on Will, but always with available junk or machinery; the other boy, made fearless by his new awareness of the world, accepts all challenges. (My favorite occurs when Will lets himself get hurled backwards after taking the full, close-up force of a farm's industrial sprinkler blast to the chest.)

Much as this plotline drives Son of Rambow, Jennings' film has additional joys in its side-stories. As with Bill Forsyth's Gregory's Girl, a host of supporting school characters wander through this narrative, none more crucial than the French foreign-exchange students who arrive just as Lee and Will are becoming inseparable.

Most of these newcomers are quiet and uncertain, but one departs the bus with a flourish: the jaw-droppingly exotic Didier (Jules Sitruk), dressed with such deliberately aggressive ambiguity that it's difficult to determine that he's a boy.

But he's more than boy enough for all the upper-level girls in Lee and Will's school, who soon are standing in line for an opportunity to lock lips with this guy who seems to be from another planet ... a process stage-managed by Didier's new posse of adoring British lads.

Didier eventually learns of the movie being made, and circumstances allow him to believe that the amiable Will is the driving force, rather than the belligerent Lee. Suddenly wafted into a level of acceptance that makes him giddy, Will allows himself to be seduced by this new popularity ... a change of dynamic that does not go unnoticed by the increasingly abandoned Lee.

Although it seems I've spent a great deal of time on plot exposition, I've barely scratched the surface; what follows plays on the nature of friendship, family and the constant struggle to fit in. Jennings' script wanders a bit, and his focus strays; toward the middle, the film briefly loses its way as Didier's character becomes too prominent.

But for the most part, this tender saga is dead-on with respect to its depiction of that seminal moment when two little boys take their first step toward maturity.

The film's raw, realistic and kitchen-sink approach — which makes the story seem that much more real — is amplified by Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith's decision to cast total unknowns as their leads. Neither Milner nor Poulter had acted before, and their fresh performances here are unerringly natural.

Poulter is every inch the combative little scamp, but he's also up for the tougher scenes, when Lee's true emotions finally come flooding out. Milner, for his part, wanders forlornly through the early scenes as though drugged: Then, watching his inner light begin to blaze — his eyes and mouth taking on new animation — is as magical as seeing a spring flower unfold.

Jennings and Goldsmith, collectively known as "Hammer & Tongs," have an interesting history. They've collaborated on countless British TV commercials and music videos, and they planned Son of Rambow as their feature film debut. But fate and a thumping big budget intervened, and they found themselves tagged to bring Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to the big screen.

Although not entirely successful with Adams' fans, Hitchhiker was a quite respectable entry to the movie biz, so Jennings and Goldsmith then returned to their original project. No doubt the Son of Rambow that has emerged now benefits from their greater experience, and Jennings certainly builds his story to a great payoff.

A couple of great payoffs, actually. The obvious one is a real tear-jerker, but the subtler one is much more satisfying: our unexpected realization that nerd-dom is only in the eye of the beholder, and that — as always — one man's trash is another man's treasure.

I'd love to think Son of Rambow will enjoy the slowly building momentum My Life As a Dog experienced two decades ago, but Paramount Vantage isn't throwing much money into the publicity campaign.

That leaves it up to us...

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Visitor: Most welcome

The Visitor (2008) • View trailer for The Visitor
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too harshly, for fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.22.08
Buy DVD: The Visitor • Buy Blu-Ray: The Visitor [Blu-ray]

Depression, at its most insidious, becomes a melancholy treadmill not even perceived as a problem.

We go through the motions — work, sleep, eat, keep all necessary appointments — but remain numb to life. The world ceases to be vibrant, as if all colors have drained not just from flowers and trees, but from every possession seen at the home or office.
Desperately wanting to learn more about drumming, but equally terrified of
appearing foolish — or, worse yet, being ridiculed by a young man he barely
knows — Walter (Richard Jenkins, left) slowly allows Tarek (Haaz Sleiman)
to teach him the basics of beat, and of feeling the rhythm, and (most
important) of not thinking, but simply diving into the experience.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) endures; he does not live. A college professor by profession, he mechanically teaches his sole class, having presented the same material for so many years that he could recite the course work in his sleep. He justifies this minimal schedule by insisting, to anybody who asks, that he's devoting more time to his newest book.

At best, that's wishful thinking.

He rarely engages those who approach him; his eyes barely register their presence. If a conversation continues for too long, he cuts it off.

Writer/director Thomas McCarthy doesn't make many movies; his previous picture, The Station Agent, was a similar ensemble drama about lonely people trying to work through their problems. McCarthy's scripts are interesting, provocative and rich with potential; I see him becoming another John Sayles.

McCarthy also has a similarly strong casting sense. He made a star out of Peter Dinklage in The Station Agent, and now has given Jenkins — a longtime character actor with rich, expressive features — a lead role that should similarly boost his career.

Until now, Jenkins has been one of those stalwarts whose face you'll likely recognize from countless supporting roles, even if you're unlikely to remember (or even know) his name. The Visitor is his dream come true: a chance to truly demonstrate the acting chops that have waited for such an opportunity.

Walter works at a comfortable Connecticut university, but to say he "teaches" might be an overstatement; we get a sense that his students don't profit much from his class. At home, alone in a quiet house, he has gone through a series of piano teachers in an effort to learn how to play. We eventually learn that he's doing so as a means of re-connecting with his wife, a talented concert pianist whose death has led to Walter's shadowy, not-quite-existence.

We don't get specifics. Walter's wife might have died the previous week, or three years earlier. It doesn't really matter; the point is that he hasn't been able to move on.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Young @ Heart: Sing loud!

Young @ Heart (2007) • View trailer for Young @ Heart
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for absolutely no reason
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.14.08
Buy DVD: Young @ Heart

This film's indomitable spirit is palpable.

No matter how overwhelmed you are about world events, no matter how bad your day, no matter how dismayed you might be — and this is the important one — about any element of encroaching old age, Young @ Heart will make you feel better. Director Stephen Walker's documentary should be bottled and prescribed: Watch once each week before bed. Pleasant dreams guaranteed.
Having learned only hours earlier that one of their members has died, the Young
@ Heart chorus nonetheless rallies for a performance in front on an unusual
audience: the hardened inmates at the local Hampshire County Jail. But as this
film demonstrates time and again, even convicts are no match for the
irrepressible joy that blazes from these two dozen singers.

It's that inspirational.

The previews seen for the past month give an ample glimpse of the giddy enjoyment to be found in this profile of the soon-to-be-even- more-famous Young @ Heart Chorus of Northampton, Mass., but the film in its totality is even more unexpectedly delightful.

I've no idea how many hours of footage Walker and editor Chris King condensed in order to produce this heartwarming gem, but they did a masterful job.

They shot for seven straight weeks while the chorus rehearsed for a one-night-only performance in its home town, splicing this footage with more personal interviews and several music videos — producer Sally George directed these — that are drop-dead hilarious (The Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated," David Bowie's "Golden Years" and The BeeGees' "Stayin' Alive").

To borrow that hyperbolic phrase from Hollywood's youth, the results will make you laugh, cry and experience every emotion in between. You'll also be breathless, and more than once.

Young @ Heart isn't merely entertaining, poignant and unforgettable; most of all, it's important. Aside from reminding our offensively snobbish, youth-obsessed culture that life does too begin at 70, and that seniors bring a wealth of experience and pragmatic savvy to everything they do, Walker's film humanizes its subjects to the degree that their outer physical appearance melts away, and we see only a fresh-faced, incandescent inner glow.

At one point, as one of these elderly gentlemen endures a good-natured birthday greeting, we're told that he looks and behaves more like a 10-year-old boy.

Indeed, this could be said of every member of the chorus. They're all childlike, in the most positive sense: curious, fearless, open to new experiences and quite willing to show the world a thing or two.

So far, we could be discussing any chorus of seniors. This one is unique because these 70-, 80- and 90-somethings have become famous for their eye-opening renditions of rock, punk and R&B hits ... the more unexpected the material, the better.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Made of Honor: Nuptial follies

Made of Honor (2008) • View trailer for Made of Honor
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for sexual content and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.8.08
Buy DVD: Made of Honor • Buy Blu-Ray: Made of Honor (+ BD Live) [Blu-ray]

For an insubstantial trifle, Made of Honor is reasonably entertaining.

Continuing the respectable jump to big-screen leading man that he established with Enchanted, Patrick Dempsey works his charm to impressive effect in this gender-reversing twist on My Best Friend's Wedding.
After badly missing his best gal pal while she's away on a lengthy business
trip, Tom (Patrick Dempsey, right) eagerly anticipates telling her that he'd like
to turn their long-standing friendship into something much deeper. Imagine
his chagrin, then, when Hannah (Michelle Monaghan) returns from Scotland
with both a ring and a fiancé (Kevin McKidd) in tow.

And that's no mean feat, considering the degree to which Dempsey's self-centered character could be considered unpalatable. I can't imagine why any woman would remain interested in a confirmed bachelor with more one-night stands than Baskin-Robbins has flavors — not to mention a series of asinine rules to keep these willing cuties in their place, such as no "back-to-back" date on consecutive nights — but, hey, that's Hollywood.

In stories like these, there's never any shortage of nubile, half-dressed lovelies willing to throw themselves at the leading man.

But OK, once we get past the fact that Dempsey's Tom is an unrepentant horndog, he's rather adorable. And yes, he's cute, and Dempsey certainly makes the most of the God-given good looks that help keep his star alive on TV's Grey's Anatomy.

Tom's less desirable qualities are kept in check by longtime gal pal Hannah (Michelle Monaghan, Mission: Impossible III and Gone Baby Gone), who refused to sleep with him at a crucial moment and, as a result, has remained his best friend ever since. Tom actually has the perfect life: He's rich — this film makes him the inventor of the "coffee cup jacket," which prevents people from burning their fingers — and sleeps around to his heart's content, and then spends actual quality time with Hannah.

All those one-night stands apparently satisfy only a physical itch; when it comes to actually bonding with a woman, Tom always turns to Hannah. He knows her desires, habits and idiosyncrasies inside-out, and she knows him just as well.

Obviously, they're meant for each other.

Just as obviously, Tom's never gonna do anything about it ... and we can tell, from Hannah's occasionally melancholy glance, that she wishes otherwise.

Business takes Hannah to Scotland for six weeks, during which Tom — never having been without her company for so long — misses her terribly. The penny having dropped, he decides to do something about it. But the opportunity seems to have passed, because when Hannah returns to New York, she's wearing an engagement ring and accompanied by a gallant and ruggedly handsome Scotsman named Colin (Kevin McKidd), who couldn't be more perfect if he'd been created by a Harlequin Romance novelist.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian -- Sharp-edged sequel

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008) • View trailer for The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, and far too gently, due to a very grim tone and considerable violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.16.08
Buy DVD: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian • Buy Blu-Ray: Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian [Blu-ray]

Given Radio Disney's involvement with this film's Tuesday evening preview in Sacramento, and the impressive Mouse House publicity machine at work as these words are typed, one can't help assuming that The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is designed as a family-friendly follow-up to its lavishly produced and enthusiastically received 2005 predecessor.
The Pevensie children — from left, Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Peter (William
Moseley), Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell) — follow their
new friend, Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), into an underground crypt, where
they're saddened to find the final resting place of Aslan, the wise and kindly
lion who helped so much during their previous adventures in Narnia.

The misleading PG rating also supports that belief.

But while this adventure saga delivers a smashing good time (literally!), parents need to exercise caution: Director/co-scripter Andrew Adamson's second run at C.S. Lewis is very grim stuff, with a mercilessly bleak atmosphere and a body count comparable to that found in Shakespeare's Hamlet or Macbeth. The battle scenes are impressively staged — one intimate, two monumental — but the presentation is comparable to the PG-13 hacking and slashing of all three Lord of the Rings entries.

Bad things happen to good characters in this sequel, and impressionable youngsters are apt to get rather upset when some of their favorite supporting characters don't make it to the final act.

Yes, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe had its share of dire doings, but most concerned the supernatural machinations of Tilda Swinton's White Witch. Although she makes a brief return appearance here, the (ahem) lion's share of battlefield mayhem is of the man-made, sword-wielding variety.

Watching scores (hundreds?) of foot-soldiers on both sides get sliced and diced is a bit more unsettling than seeing folks turned into statues.

I also wonder whether contemporary filmmakers have any sense of the attention span of today's children. Prince Caspian runs an impressive 138 minutes — rather a lot of movie for such a short book! — and while Adamson maintains a lively pace that moves the story right along, that's still asking a lot of the restless youngsters at whom this picture seems aimed.

The slightly older Harry Potter crowd, on the other hand, should have a great time.

After an all-too brief prologue in Blitz-ravaged London, our four young protagonists — Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (the still irresistible Georgie Henley) — are summoned back to Narnia by the blast of a magical horn. But they arrive to find that centuries have passed during their single year in London: Everything they remember of Narnia, and all the friendly characters with whom they bonded, are nothing but distant memories.

Indeed, the very magic has been leached from the land: Trees no longer sing or gambol, and most forest animals have reverted to their more primal Earthlike counterparts.

Aslan, the wonderfully wise lion so beloved by young Lucy, hasn't been seen for a millennium.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Speed Racer: Spinning its wheels, nowhere to go

Speed Racer (2008) • View trailer for Speed Racer
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for cartoon action
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.15.08
Buy DVD: Speed Racer • Buy Blu-Ray: Speed Racer [Blu-ray]

This isn't a movie; it's a pinball machine.

Same garish colors. Same cacophonous sound effects. Same mindlessly repetitive action.

Utterly soulless.
The family that races also embraces: As Speed (Emile Hirsch) brings his
thundering Mach 5 home after a successful test run, he's greeted by adoring
girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), his parents (Susan Sarandon and John
Goodman) and loyal mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry).

Even at a time when Hollywood has embraced dozens of superhero movie projects, the notion of turning a 1960s cartoon series into a live-action film seems quite daft ... particularly when the show in question didn't have that much to recommend it in the first place.

Larry and Andy Wachowski certainly tackled this problem head-on, even if their efforts are misguided. Speed Racer is both a throwback and a wholly fabricated, computer-enhanced effort to make a live-action cartoon. As with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and 300, only the human performers (I refuse to ennoble their efforts by calling them "actors") are real; all the backgrounds, settings, gadgets and vehicles are CGI constructs.

But whereas the filmmakers behind Sky Captain and 300 put serious effort into creating worlds that we'd find similar to our actual workaday universe, this new "Speed Racer" deliberately mimics the vibrantly op art cartoon environment of Mach Go Go Go, as the TV show was known in native Japan.

Not a terribly lofty goal, when we consider how limiting that animation was, all those years ago.

The writing wasn't much better, and the Wachowski brothers' script is no improvement.

OK, fine; in theory, nothing is wrong with making a feature-length cartoon, even one populated by live human characters. But I can't figure out this film's target audience. It's too contrived, juvenile and boring for anybody over the age of, say, 8 ... but, at 135 mind-numbing minutes, it's too damn long for the small fry who'd identify most with this cast's youngest character, Spritle, who comes complete with a chimpanzee sidekick. (Yep, this is that kind of movie.)

Based on the behavior observed during last week's Sacramento preview screening, the youngest viewers were quite restless before we even hit the halfway point ... which was a good half-hour after I felt my brain cells shriveling from lack of stimulation.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Iron Man: Plenty of mettle

Iron Man (2008) • View trailer for Iron Man
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.2.08
Buy DVD: Iron Man • Buy Blu-Ray: Iron Man (Ultimate Two-Disc Edition + BD Live) [Blu-ray]

On his deathbed, British actor and director Donald Wolfit is said to have joked, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard."

I'd have to add that superhero movies are harder still.
Trapped somewhere in Afghanistan by gun-toting insurgents who've ordered him
to build them a super-missile system, the badly wounded Tony Stark (Robert
Downey Jr., left), assisted by fellow prisoner Yinsen (Shaun Toub), tries to fool
their captors long enough to design something entirely different ... something
that might help them escape.

Achieving the crucial balance of elements frequently eludes filmmakers. Too dour and grim, and you wind up with a Daredevil that isn't much fun to watch. Overcompensate in the other direction, by allowing the material to become a parody of itself, and you wind up with the stupidity of The Fantastic Four. In both cases, the mainstream public couldn't care less, while genre fans get cranky.

Spider-Man 2 gets the mix right; its predecessor is almost as good. Batman Begins comes close. All three of the X-Men films navigate the territory pretty well. Back in the day, the first bit of Christopher Reeve's first Superman film really caught it.

Iron Man belongs in their company.

Director Jon Favreau achieves just the proper tone, and the script — credited to Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, but no doubt sweetened by diverse other hands — is surprisingly intelligent, while allowing its characters to loosen up and unleash an occasional well-timed one- liner. Indeed, some scenes are genuinely funny ... but never at the expense of the material.

Mostly, though, the credit goes to Robert Downey Jr., a serious and extremely talented actor who knows precisely how to play the role of multi-gazillionaire industrialist and electronic/engineering whiz kid Tony Stark, who falls into the hero gig out of necessity and conscience, rather than accident or freakish biology.

Although never one of Marvel Comics' front-line stars, Iron Man always has been one of the most interesting. Like Bruce Wayne, Stark is a regular guy — admittedly, a very smart one — who utilizes technology to become a champion of the oppressed. Such characters more easily satisfy wish fulfillment: We can imagine, granted access to the same gadgets, that we, too, could right wrongs with a clandestine alter-ego.

And because this script is savvy enough to exploit contemporary real-world issues, Stark's epiphany — and his unorthodox solution to a problem of his own creation — plays quite successfully to our desire for good-guy closure to ghastly events in hot spots such as Afghanistan.

We're introduced to Stark at his worst, which is to say his most venal, self-indulgent and self-absorbed. Unrepentant playboy by night and the ruthlessly amoral face of Stark Industries by day, Tony has just unveiled his Jericho missile — capable of leveling small mountains — to appreciative members of the U.S. military. This nasty little toy follows various amped-up automatic weapons, not to mention a few cloak-and-dagger-style gadgets undoubtedly not permitted by the Geneva Convention.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

My Blueberry Nights: Sweet dreams

My Blueberry Nights (2007) • View trailer for My Blueberry Nights
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.1.08
Buy DVD: My Blueberry Nights • Buy Blu-Ray: My Blueberry Nights [Blu-ray]

Some films luxuriate in their display of technique and mood, the characters' actions sometimes shunted aside so we can reflect upon what brought them to this point, and (more crucially) what might be necessary to propel them anew.
With no other friends in whom to confide, a heartbroken Elizabeth (Norah Jones)
tentatively reaches out to compassionate café owner Jeremy (Jude Law); their
resulting friendship gives her the strength necessary to begin a journey of

Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai loves the richness of atmosphere; he indulges in arty set design and inventive camerawork, always striving to convey the contemplative, troubled state of mind that he obviously believes characterizes so much of humanity. His films move slowly — some would say much too slowly — while following the actions of protagonists whose feelings smolder beneath a surface veneer usually dictated by social custom.

2000's In the Mood for Love, for example, followed the relationship of chance that develops between stars Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, when they learn that their respective spouses (whom we never meet) are having an affair. What, then, might our protagonists' next move be? A supportive friendship? Their own extra-marital fling, prompted by spite?

The decision unfolds against the gloomy hallways and darkened rooms of an apartment complex in 1960s Hong Kong: often more dream than reality.

Wong's films are an acquired taste: eclectic and temperamental for their own sake, but unfailingly generous to actors willing to conceive and then inhabit richly intriguing characters, suggesting their thoughts and desires via small gestures and minimal dialogue.

"Sometimes the tangible distance between two persons can be quite small," Wong has said, "but the emotional one can be miles."

His English-language film debut, My Blueberry Nights, is very much in this spirit: a quiet examination of a young woman who decides to find herself in the wake of a relationship gone sour. The resulting drama is pure road trip; she journeys across the United States and touches down in this city or that, pausing long enough to become a catalyst in the lives of other troubled souls.

She learns, as do we, that no matter how tragic our own experiences seem, somebody else is having a much tougher time. And, sometimes, watching others fail to cope — watching them sink for the third time — is all the prodding we need to get our own act together.

The young woman is Elizabeth (sultry jazz/folk singer Norah Jones, in a respectable acting debut), and her story begins in New York, where she has just learned that her boyfriend is cheating on her. The news is delivered almost accidentally by a compassionate café owner, Jeremy (Jude Law), who remembers his customers not by their faces, but by what they order; he recalls Elizabeth's "pork chop" companion having been in with somebody else.