Thursday, July 31, 2008

Swing Vote: Count on Kevin

Swing Vote (2008) • View trailer for Swing Vote
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for quite a bit of (good-natured) profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.31.08
Buy DVD: Swing Vote • Buy Blu-Ray: Swing Vote [Blu-ray]

Although the movie industry occasionally dabbles in politics, the results usually emerge as a comedy or a thriller: either way, nothing to be taken seriously.

And when filmmakers try to be serious, the results usually fall far short of expectations. Last year's Lions for Lambs became the most recent flop to "prove" an ancient Hollywood truism: Politics is the kiss of death to a film, as far as box office results are concerned.
Career goof-off Bud Johnson (Kevin Coster) finally gets a sense of his pivotal
place in history after confronting the sacks of mail from citizens across the
entire United States: letters that his far more sensitive daughter, Molly
(Madeline Carroll) has been answering in his name, so that all these people
don't think that her father is letting them down.

Indeed, one could cite the truly great American political films on the fingers of one hand: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, All the King's Men (the 1949 version), The Candidate and Wag the Dog come to mind, with Thirteen Days and Primary Colors perhaps ranking as recent near-misses.

Director/co-writer Joshua Michael Stern and fellow scribe Jason Richman deserve considerable credit, then, for their sharply observed screenplay in Swing Vote, a deceptively quiet little comedy-drama that takes an increasingly perceptive poke at the modern American political machine. And if the behavior of our two political parties, as this story progresses, doesn't really seem that bizarre ... well, then, more's the pity.

Swing Vote also demonstrates, yet again, the amazing resilience of star Kevin Costner. This guy's career has had more peaks and valleys than most, but every time he threatens to become known only for ill-advised projects — Dragonfly and Rumor Has It come to mind, and even last year's cleverly conceived Mr. Brooks was a financial disappointment — he rebounds with another one of his well-timed and perfectly cast Americana roles: think Bull Durham, Tin Cup, Open Range and now Swing Vote.

Costner slides comfortably into his part here as Bud Johnson, an apathetic, smart-mouthed but usually amiable loser who drinks too much and can't be bothered to do more than just slide by. He and his precocious 12-year-old daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll, a thorough delight), live in a dilapidated mobile home, where he crashes each night after too many beers, following another demoralizing factory shift where he packages eggs on an assembly line.

Molly is Bud's "one good thing," but he takes unconscionable advantage of the girl, who too often finds herself being the parent in their family dynamic: She makes all the meals, cleans things up and hauls him out of bed each morning, so he can drive her to school ... although, as we quickly learn, she's capable of driving herself, having gotten considerable practice every time Bud goes on a bender.

Bud and Molly live in flyspeck Texico, N.M., a community so tiny that it isn't even on the map. As a result, local interest in the impending presidential election is somewhat lax, with pollworkers likely to fall asleep from sheer boredom.

But Molly takes civic duty quite seriously. A well- received school essay comes to the attention of local TV reporter Kate Madison (Paula Patton), who puts the girl on the evening news; this plays right into the most recent promise Molly has extracted from her father, who has agreed to let her write about his voting experience that same evening.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Animation Show 4: Mixed bag

Animation Show 4 (2008)
Three stars (out of five). Rating: Unrated, but with R-level profanity and adult situations
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.25.08

I greatly admire the compact precision of succinct works, whether one-act plays, short stories, anthology TV shows or the Academy Awards' annual live action and animated short subjects.

Indeed, I'll willingly suffer through a dozen mediocre (or worse) stories in an average published collection, in the hope of finding a noteworthy nugget or two.
The two comically grave undertakes of "This Way Up" begin their newest
assignment with no expectation that the simple task of conveying a coffin to
its burial site will become so difficult.

Any creative typist can churn out 814 undisciplined pages and call it a novel, but true talent is required to produce a memorable short story, where the very nature of the form demands that not a single word be wasted.

Similarly, a short film hasn't the luxury of the time required for backstory or extensive character exposition; all necessary information must be delivered economically and (one hopes) cleverly. Factor in the myriad options available to modern animators — traditional cel drawings, claymation, stop-motion or CGI — and the medium itself, in gifted hands, can help the storyline have an even greater impact.

Small wonder, then, that I embrace the good things that frequently come in the small packages of touring cartoon road shows, the newest of which — The Animation Show 4 — opens today at Sacramento's Crest Theater.

Like many such packages, it's a mixed bag. And, further armed with the knowledge that this annual collection is assembled by executive producer/curator Mike Judge, the perhaps notorious creator of "Beavis and Butthead," one can expect a certain, ah, negligence with respect to artistic prowess.

To put it bluntly, Judge will tolerate garbage animation in the pursuit of something he finds otherwise clever or acidly amusing. This will come as no surprise to those who couldn't get beyond the deliberately junky visual style of Beavis and Butthead, no matter how pointed the political and social commentary.

I cheerfully admit to being old-school, and therefore utterly unforgiving of "art" that my 4-year-old nephew could have done, and probably better. As a result, I find much of The Animation Show 4 to be ugly, sloppy, lazy and utterly without merit.

A 50-second short concerning the unusual appetite of Corky Quakenbush's "Yompi, the Crotch-Biting Sloup" — the title tells it all — might be worth a single grimaced giggle, but three rounds of this claymation oddity, spaced throughout the program, seems needlessly excessive.

Similarly, the so-limited-that-nothing-moves "animation" of Steve Dildarian's "Angry Unpaid Hooker" is wholly superfluous to the verbal comedy sketch that fuels this six-minute piece (one of the program's longest). It might have been funny if presented as a live stand-up routine, but learning that this waste of time took the best animated short award at the 2006 HBO Comedy Arts Festival — and is being developed into a TV series (!) — merely confirms the declining appreciation, in certain quarters, for animation that looks like animation.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Brick Lane: Building a life

Brick Lane (2007) • View trailer for Brick Lane
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and quite unnecessarily, for fleeting sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.24.08
Buy DVD: Brick Lane

Having seen her mother commit suicide out of despair, 17-year-old Nazneen's father rips the young woman from the only life she knows in her poor Bangladeshi village, and ships her off to an arranged marriage with an older man who resides in a dilapidated block of flats in London's East End.

Challenging such a decision, which removes Nazneen from the sister she adores, is unthinkable; nor can she even raise any questions.
Having finally decided to take his family on a trip to Bangladesh, the laughably
pompous Chanu (Satish Kaushik, far right) only then insists on "seeing the
sights" in the city — London — that has been their home for so many years.
The resulting family picnic is a source of tolerant amusement to Chantu's
wife, Nazneed (Tannishtha Chatterjee) and barely concealed boredom to their
daughters, from left, Bibi (Lana Rahman) and Shahana (Naeema Begum).

"If Allah had wanted us to ask questions," her older self intones, in narrative voice-over, "he would have made us men."

Such mordant, resigned irony cuts to the core of Brick Lane, director Sarah Gavron's sensitive, eye-opening adaptation of Monica Ali's novel, scripted with impressive care by Abi Morgan and Laura Jones. Although this film can do no more than capture a sense of Ali's intimate book, Gavron's sure hand coaxes telling performances from her central characters, and most particularly from Tannishtha Chatterjee, as the adult Nazneen.

The story proper commences 16 years later, as Nazneen has settled into her dull, empty routine as the wife of Chanu (Satish Kaushik), a large, almost comically formal man nearly crippled by a surfeit of wholly misguided pride. He is the unquestioned lord and master of the household, and we take for granted the fact that Nazneen leaves these small rooms — merely one of many identical flats along the lane that gives this film its name — only to shop for food.

She has neither friends nor acquaintances, hobbies nor avocations: nothing to bring the slightest measure of joy into her life.

Nothing of hers.

Even their two bright and rambunctious daughters — 14-year-old Shahana (Naeema Begum) and 10-year-old Bibi (Lana Rahman) — are at best a mixed blessing, because during moments of anger Chanu is more likely to speak of the infant son who died, years earlier. Instead, Chanu grumbles, Allah has "cursed" him with only daughters.

There's a great temptation, during these early scenes, to dismiss Chanu as a brutish, callous, unloving misanthrope ... but that's both too simple and too indicative of our own reflexive Western sensibilities. Brick Lane, as it progresses, is a quiet waiting game that rewards our patience with small miracles: most particularly the fact (to her surprise) that Nazneen does, in her own way, genuinely love her husband ... and the astonishing realization, eventually, that we also pity and sympathize with the man.

Because Chanu is as much a victim of his own cultural heritage as Nazneen.

For years, the only radiance in Nazneen's existence has been the infrequent mail from her sister, Hasina, who remained in Bangladesh. The other girl speaks merrily of falling in love with this man or that, her words a poignant reminder of the homeland Nazneen has hoped, lo these many years, to see again.

Chanu periodically speaks of his own desire to "return home," but we quickly realize that he's a blue-sky dreamer, as incapable of genuinely planning such a journey as he is at holding down a steady job.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight: Pitch black

The Dark Knight (2008) • View trailer for The Dark Knight
4.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and a relentlessly grim tone
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.18.08
Buy DVD: The Dark Knight • Buy Blu-Ray: The Dark Knight (+ BD Live) [Blu-ray]

This one has teeth.

Sharp teeth.
Determined to extract some information from the jailed Joker (Heath Ledger),
Batman (Christian Bale) unexpectedly appears in the criminal's cell, hoping
to startle him into a confession. But the Joker doesn't startle easily — indeed,
not at all — and this battle of wits is only beginning.

Patrons accustomed to a certain frivolous atmosphere from superhero movies — a larger-than-life approach to both characterization and storyline, with elements so fantastic that emotional engagement remains difficult, if even superfluous — are in for a nasty surprise with The Dark Knight.

This newest, exceedingly well-named entry in the Batman franchise is extremely dark indeed, not to mention uncomfortably realistic, its story an acutely perceptive dissection of humanity's frailties and failings. Longtime comic book fans who've hungered for a cinematic re-boot to match the grim tone of Frank Miller's graphic novels can rejoice: This is, without question, the way Batman was intended to be presented.

Director/co-writer Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale made a serious step in the proper direction with 2005's Batman Begins, although that film suffered a bit from the need to trace the character's origins and develop fresh exposition. With that foundation sufficiently established, though, they've now unleashed — and that really is the proper word — a macabre, brooding and at times agonizingly suspenseful sequel that deserves to be called a serious drama.

Comic book storylines undergo a metamorphosis every decade or so, as new writers struggle to inject fresh issues into franchise characters who, to a certain degree, cannot change all that much. It's an intriguing challenge, and one current permutation involves trying to confront the real-world social implications of having a superhero in town. (Will Smith's Hancock also covers this territory, albeit quite badly.)

The current and quite seductive concept can be viewed as a corollary to the frustrating economic truism that expenditures always rise to meet income: Because Nature abhors a vacuum, a metropolis systematically cleansed of crime by a powerful vigilante will, as an inevitable side effect, produce ever-more-determined villains. In other words, supervillains rise up to wage war against superheroes ... not the other way around.

And so The Dark Knight begins — its methodical and psychologically astute script by Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer — as Bruce Wayne's dour alter-ego joins dedicated Gotham City cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and forthright new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in an ambitious plan to bring the local mob to its knees, once and for all.

Their efforts are effective, to a degree, and the various mob bosses — the most frequent face being Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts, at his smarmy best) — find themselves backed into a corner and perhaps more willing to consider a previously unthinkable option:

The enthusiastic, if unpredictable, involvement of a vicious and deranged madman who has dubbed himself The Joker (Heath Ledger).

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Mamma Mia: Irresistible

Mamma Mia (2008) • View trailer for Mamma Mia
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for playfully smutty dialogue
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.17.08
Buy DVD: Mamma Mia • Buy Blu-Ray: Mamma Mia! The Movie [Blu-ray]

As musicals come and go, Mamma Mia is perhaps the most deliberately frivolous ever concocted, its postage-stamp plot no more than a tissue-thin excuse to deliver a few dozen classic ABBA hits.
While leading her friends — Tanya (Christine Baranski, left) and Rosie (Julie
Walters, right) — on a tour of her villa, Donna (Meryl Streep, center) uncorks
the song "Money, Money, Money" to explain  her precarious finances ... and,
of course, the entire Greek island community joins in the ever-expanding
production number, merely one of many in this energetic musical.

Nine years, 20 productions and 30 million tickets later, the fans obviously don't care, and with good reason: The show is a high-spirited, colorful hoot. Even now, more than 17,000 people see one of the nine current productions (worldwide) every night, generating $8 million per week in ticket sales. The word "phenomenon" would not be out of place.

Mamma Mia demands strong singers, reasonably agile dancers and very little else. The narrative does not include — indeed, actively ignores — sweeping dramatic arcs.

Naturally, then, this film adaptation is filled with actors. Whose singing abilities are uneven, at best.


In fairness, star Meryl Streep throws herself into the central role of Donna with every irrepressible atom in her energized body, and she makes the part her own through sheer force of will. And, yes, Streep sings reasonably well, as proven a few years ago with the film adaptation of A Prairie Home Companion.

Co-star Julie Walters is equally memorable as the feisty, wisecracking Rosie, one of Donna's two best friends. Walters handles her one dynamic song with reasonably aplomb, substituting similar passion — and, by the time this particular number arrives, plenty of audience good will — for actual vocal chops.

Colin Firth gets off lucky; his character, Harry, need only navigate his way through a ballad, which arrives with its wistful tone more or less intact. Stellan SkarsgÄrd's Bill, thankfully, isn't required to sing. Much.

But Pierce Brosnan?

Oh, dear.

Brosnan's Sam has two key numbers, both typical ABBA power ballads, and the picture grinds to an uncomfortable halt when he rasps his way through his first song's prologue. I haven't been this embarrassed for an actor-turned-reluctant-singer since Clint Eastwood talked to the trees back in the 1969 adaptation of Paint Your Wagon.

Mind you, I've always — always — liked Brosnan, and in all other respects he makes a great Sam. But Brosnan can't sing a lick, and Tuesday's preview audience breathed an audible sigh of relief when the backing orchestra became loud enough to better camouflage the actor's wincingly limited range.

What was everybody thinking?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Earth: Rollicking trip

Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) • View trailer for Journey to the Center of the Earth
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for fantasy peril
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.11.08
Buy DVD: Journey to the Center of the Earth • Buy Blu-Ray: Journey to the Center of the Earth [Blu-ray]

This is the best Walt Disney film that Uncle Walt never made.

Director Eric Brevig's Journey to the Center of the Earth is unapologetically retro: an old-style, family-friendly adventure highlighted by contemporary set design and creature technology. More than once, this film strongly echoes Disney's 1962 adaptation of In Search of the Castaways — another Jules Verne tale, it should be mentioned — most notably during a roaring sequence as our heroes tear down a hillside on a roundish "vehicle" of sorts.
The calm before all heck breaks loose: Our intrepid explorers — from left,
Trevor (Brendan Fraser), Sean (Josh Hutcherson) and Hannah (Anita Briem) —
make their way through a mysteriious cave, unaware that the ground is about to
give way and plunge them into an exciting adventure.

The script — by Michael Weiss, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin — is simple and superficial, but I don't mean that in a bad way; the film simply avoids angst and complicated interpersonal dynamics. We're quickly and economically introduced to our three main characters, who begin with mildly prickly relationships with each other — the better for mostly gentle one-liners — and then they pretty much carry the film on their own.

In a rather clever nod toward Verne's classic novel, which scientist Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) insists remains a "good read," our heroes use the book as a blueprint for their own incredible saga. They eventually treat the book's chapters less as a whopping tall tale, and more as an early "rough guide" to life beneath the surface.

What we 21st century citizens know of actual science must be ignored, of course ... but this film is so good- natured about its casual disregard for basic laws of physics and temperature dynamics, that we cheerfully go along for the ride.

I must bow to the continuing savvy of Walden Media, which has delivered yet another delightfully earnest adaptation of an established book, following in the recent footsteps of Holes, Hoot, Charlotte's Web, Bridge to Terabithia and both Chronicles of Narnia entries, among others. Every one of these films can be enjoyed by all ages, without pandering to children or annoying their adult companions.

My earlier nod to Uncle Walt is equally earnest; I'm certain he would have loved Walden Media's films, since the production company strives for the same elements typical of late 1950s and early '60s Disney live-action entries such as Old Yeller, Polyanna, The Swiss Family Robinson, The Incredible Journey and, as mentioned, Castaways.

Or let's put it this way: If some cranky relative of a certain age complains about how "movies aren't made like they used to be," bring said individual along when you catch this Journey to the Center of the Earth.

In quick order, we're introduced to Trevor, a university-based scientist about to lose his lab due to an absence of publishable data, and his young nephew, Sean (Josh Hutcherson, from Bridge to Terabithia). Both have holes in their souls, due to the long-ago loss of Max, Trevor's brother and Sean's father. Indeed, Trevor's subsequent career has been an effort to defend the theories of his brother, who went missing a decade ago while on field work.

Now, thanks to fresh seismic activity in a region long believed dormant, Trevor hares off to Iceland, rather irresponsibly allowing Sean to tag along. (Hey, it's that kind of story. Go with the flow.) They meet a gorgeous but impressively resourceful local guide, Hannah (Anita Briem, perhaps recognized as Jane Seymour in TV's The Tudors), who leads them to the site of Trevor's newly actived seismic whatzis.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army -- A bit tarnished

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) • View trailer for Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity and considerable action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.10.08
Buy DVD: Hellboy II: The Golden Army • Buy Blu-Ray: Hellboy II: The Golden Army [Blu-ray]

Back when he made 2004's Hellboy, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro was a star on the rise, known primarily in this country for an obscure (but quite imaginative) 1997 horror flick, Mimic, and 2002's stylish but otherwise forgettable second entry in Wesley Snipes' Blade series.
And you think you're having a bad day? Our misfit heroes — from left,
protoplasmic mystic Johann Krauss, aquatic empath Abe Sapien (Doug Jones),
reformed demon Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Selma
Blair) — reluctantly prepare for a last stand against 4,900 massive robot
warriors of death.

Arthouse patrons also had some exposure to del Toro, thanks to 2001's wonderfully moody ghosts-in-an-orphanage saga, The Devil's Backbone.

What a difference four years makes.

Today, deservedly riding the enormous success of Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro has used his enhanced prestige to rebound with — no, not another adult chiller in the mold of his Academy Award darling — a second crack at one of his favorite comic book characters.

Yep, Hellboy is back, in Hellboy II: The Golden Army ... but as far as del Toro's career is concerned, this sequel is a backwards step.

I don't fault the intent: Unlike too many stuffy Americans, del Toro is an unapologetic pop culture junkie, and that's commendable. (Del Toro's movie and comic book collection has grown so huge that he had to purchase a second house just to store it.)

And, like some of the more talented writers and artists toiling in the comic book medium these days, del Toro understands that these four-color adventures can be tailored for older audiences. I just wish del Toro had matched this new film's rich, imaginative and eye-popping visuals with a similarly strong and engaging script.

Granted, comic book writer/artist Mike Mignola's Hellboy — Mignola co-wrote this film's script with del Toro — remains a singularly fascinating protagonist.

Actually a demon spawned in hell and brought to Earth as an infant by WWII-era Nazis seeking any means to defeat the Allies — honestly, you gotta love this character's backstory — Hellboy was rescued by the good guys and raised to protect mankind from the occasional paranormal assault or underworld invasion.

His efforts remain under the radar, thanks to the belief by his government "handlers" that ordinary folks might have trouble getting cuddly with a horned red creature sporting a tail, a (literally) sledgehammer right hand and a snarky attitude ... even if he does adore kittens.

By necessity, then, Hellboy's good deed-doing has remained clandestine, as the head bad-ass for the top-top-secret Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, where he's joined by several other misfit agents. All are "chaperoned" by long-suffering government wonk Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor, always a hoot as a fussy bureaucrat).

Think Men in Black, but with a so-ugly-he's-cute hero instead of handsome fellas in three-piece suits.