Friday, September 26, 2008

Eagle Eye: Flying blind

Eagle Eye (2008) • View trailer for Eagle Eye
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for brief profanity and relentless, vicious violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.26.08
Buy DVD: Eagle Eye • Buy Blu-Ray: Eagle Eye [Blu-ray]

This one requires a serious suspension of disbelief.

All momentum, very little logic and even less common sense, Eagle Eye is one long chase scene occasionally interrupted by reluctant dollops of exposition. It's pure 21st century Hollywood escapism: frantic, noisy and obsessed far more with the destruction of as much real estate as possible, rather than trifling details such as character development.
Rachel (Michelle Monaghan, left) and Jerry (Shia LaBeouf) can't imagine how
they'll get a mysterious suitcause — with contents that shouldn't be taken onto
a plane — through airport security. Little do they realize that assistance will
come from a very hidden ally...

It is, therefore, a serious comedown for director D.J. Caruso, who previously teamed with star Shia LaBeouf for the clever and well-plotted thriller Disturbia. That film took its time and allowed us to bond with its young protagonists, while also setting up some unsettling what's-he-really-doing tension with the mysterious guy who lived next door; by the time we hit the exciting third act, we genuinely cared about out heroes.

Not so with any of the stick figures in Eagle Eye, all of whom have less substance than off-market tissue paper. The only character liable to win our hearts and minds is young Sam Holloman (Cameron Boyce), and that's solely because he's an incredibly cute little guy. We like him for the same reason that we're instinctively drawn to puppies and kittens.

Jerry Shaw (LaBeouf), a serial slacker with no intention of embracing the career path proposed by his parents, has aimlessly traveled the world and kept himself going with odd jobs. His current address is a low-rent apartment in Chicago, his current paycheck earned as a counter clerk at a local copy shop.

He's brought back to the disapproving atmosphere of his family home by a senseless vehicular accident that killed his identical twin, Ethan, an Air Force public relations officer and pride of the family. After the funeral and a bitter confrontation with his father (William Sadler) — a truly clumsy, trite and utterly unbelievable exchange between LaBeouf and Sadler — Jerry returns home and finds that his bank account is $750,000 richer ... and that his apartment is stuffed with do-it-yourself terrorist supplies.

His cell phone rings; a woman's voice instructs him to leave the apartment, or he'll be arrested in 30 seconds. Jerry fails to leave, and is promptly — and none too gently — arrested by FBI agents. Supervisor Thomas Morgan (Billy Bob Thornton) conducts the subsequent interview, which of course goes nowhere; Jerry doesn't know anything. (Or does he, we begin to wonder, at this stage.)


Overly stressed single mom Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan) is even more jittery than usual, due to 8-year-old Sam's first big trip away from home: a train journey to Washington, D.C., where he'll play trumpet with his school band, as the kids perform at the Kennedy Center.

That evening, after a particularly emotional farewell — punctuated by the brief arrival of her deadbeat ex- husband, another useless character we never see again (detect a pattern here?) — Rachel receives a similar phone call from what we recognize is the same woman. Rachel is ordered to find a particular vehicle and drive it to a pre-determined spot, with the warning that failure to comply will result in her son's death by train derailment.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Nights in Rodanthe: Contrived nonsense

Nights in Rodanthe (2008) • View trailer for Nights in Rodanthe
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and quite needlessly, for mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.25.08
Buy DVD: Nights in Rodanthe • Buy Blu-Ray: Nights in Rodanthe (+ BD-Live) [Blu-ray]

Full disclosure time:

I'm a hard-core romantic and a sucker for sweet little love stories; were it not for light-hearted caper thrillers — absolutely my favorite genre — starry-eyed melodramas would occupy the No. 1 spot.
Dr. Paul Flanner (Richard Gere), having traveled to North Carolina's Outer
Banks during the off-season, for a supremely uncomfortable personal errand,
doesn't wish to eat alone at the inn managed by Adrienne Willis (Diane Lane);
he therefore brings his dinner into the kitchen and joins her. It's a cute, gently
flirtatious scene; sadly, the rest of the film can't match its charm.

And I'm absolutely equal-opportunity; I don't care whether the equation's two halves are a guy and a gal, two members of the same gender, mismatched robots or cowboy string-dolls named Woody and Jessie. As long as they fall into each other's arms as the final act concludes — or we know they will — I'm a happy camper.

Shirley MacLaine's sidelong demand that Jack Lemmon "Shut up and deal," at the end of 1960's The Apartment, is one of the greatest — and most romantic — closing lines ever written for a film.

I mention all this by way of demonstrating that I am, quite clearly, part of the target audience for director George C. Wolfe's adaptation of Nights in Rodanthe, scripted by Ann Peacock and John Romano, and based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks.

But despite my genre willingness, this flick did nothing for me.

Sparks, frequently courted by Hollywood, has a tendency to ladle his melodrama with a trowel; the films adapted from his overly contrived novels often suffer from the same disease.

Sparks' characters don't just suffer; they endure the overwhelming mental anguish of the damned.

It might work on the printed page, but selling such purple melodrama on the big screen depends on the acting talent involved.

Kevin Costner spent all of 1998's dreary and laughably improbable Message in a Bottle looking for character motivation.

2002's A Walk to Remember — despite the sympathetic treatment of its religious protagonist — was little more than a hiccup in Mandy Moore's slow rise up Hollywood's ladder of fame.

The Notebook, depending on your tolerance for such stuff, was either too maudlin for words or too sad to endure, although it certainly boasted a strong cast.

Which brings us to Nights in Rodanthe, which gets some of its notoriety for once again re-uniting stars Richard Gere and Diane Lane, who struck reasonably tragic sparks in Unfaithful, and first worked together all the way back in The Cotton Club.

Lane can act — quite well, in fact — and she pulls off this story's tougher scenes.

Gere cannot, and does not.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Ghost Town: Dead funny!

Ghost Town (2008) • View trailer for Ghost Town
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and too harshly, for sexual candor, brief profanity and fleeting drug references
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.19.08
Buy DVD: Ghost Town • Buy Blu-Ray: Ghost Town [Blu-ray]

Director/co-scripter David Koepp's clever and witty screenplay has much to do with the success of Ghost Town, but the film belongs to Ricky Gervais.

The popular British actor/comic, well known for the TV shows The Office and Extras, makes a smashing leap to big-screen stardom in a role perfectly suited to his talents. As dentist Bertram Pincus, Gervais displays a hilariously misanthropic streak that's softened just enough by the woebegone face of a lonely dog abandoned by its beloved master.
After a hospital "incident" leaves dentist Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) with
the ability to see and communicate with the deceased, he's besieged by
phantoms who beg him to help complete final tasks that will allow them to
escape their Earthly purgatory.

Pincus has no use for people, not even his clinic partner or the many patients who settle nervously into his chair. They're all talkers, and he derives far too much satisfaction from silencing the chatter with cotton plugs, gunk-laden impression trays or enthusiastic applications of Novocain.

If requested to hold the elevator where he resides in a tony Manhattan flat, he'll pretend to do so while stealthily stabbing the "close" button, then displaying a faux apologetic expression as the doors close on an exasperated neighbor.

In short, Pincus is an unredeemable cad, but in a fussy, Felix Unger manner that makes him somehow endearing.

Because we know the truth, and that's the beauty of Gervais' performance: Despite his snarky behavior, Pincus is a man in desperate pain, and one who needs to see the light.

Instead, he sees ghosts.

A routine colonoscopy is punctuated by an "incident" with the general anesthesia that leaves Pincus clinically dead for seven minutes; his subsequent discovery of this catastrophe emerges during a conversation with his surgeon and the hospital's legal watchdog. The start-stop hiccups of this "chat" are to die for: perfectly timed by all three actors, and marvelously choreographed by Koepp.

And certain to be appreciated by any viewer who ever tried to extract candor from a doctor conditioned by lawyers to say nothing.

The upshot, before Pincus can mutter "I see dead people," is precisely that: He's left with the ability to interact with the multitude of ghosts crowding the streets of New York. This isn't the slightest bit scary, merely annoying ... because all these shades, by definition, are stuck in their Earth-bound purgatory until they're able to complete some unfinished business.

Suddenly this dentist, who wants nothing to do with anybody, is the only hope for a legion of frustrated and dispirited spirits.

Sheer genius.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Women: Chick shtick

The Women (2008) • View trailer for The Women
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity, sexual candor and brief drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.18.08
Buy DVD: The Women • Buy Blu-Ray: The Women [Blu-ray]

Sometimes, even with top-quality talent, everything goes wrong.

Bad casting decisions. Inconsistent tone. Inexperienced and tin-eared directorial decisions.
Having just learned that her husband is having a rather public affair, Mary
Haines (Meg Ryan, center) flees with her daughter (India Ennenga, left) to her
mother's (Candice Bergen) "summer cabin," while trying to determine her next
move. Sadly, the one thing Mary won't get is good advice or rock-solid support
from her three best friends, because they're too frequently AWOL in writer/
director Diane English's clumsy modern remake of The Women.

Let's begin with the first mistake: the extremely ill-advised decision to remake a play that first hit the big screen in 1939, when director George Cukor guided Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine and Paulette Goddard — among others — in his snarky film adaptation of Clare Booth Luce's The Women.

Luce's play emerged at a time when women — even rich society women — had far fewer options. This isn't mere historical observation; it's crucial to the nature of Luce's play, because a woman of that era risked everything if she chose to divorce her husband, even if the philandering swine deserved it.

Arguing for calm reflection — insisting that the betrayed wife carefully weigh her options, and give serious consideration to forgiving the cad — might have made more sense on the eve of World War II.

In today's world, however, we cannot for a second imagine why all her friends — and even her mother! — would keep insisting that Mary Haines (Meg Ryan) grant a second chance to the off-camera lout who has stepped out on her with a tarted-up perfume counter babe employed at Saks.

Or why Mary would seriously consider such advice.

It's particularly difficult because we never meet her husband, and therefore have no emotional investment in his point of view. That's the gimmick here, as it was in Cukor's film: The cast is entirely female. Whether at home, at work or striding down New York City sidewalks, these characters never encounter — nor do we ever see — any men.

The word "contrived" leaps to mind, which also pretty well covers writer/director Diane English's script.

Cukor, even though he did operate at a time when the central storyline "read" well, had the good sense to retain Luce's wonderfully nasty tone. Her play is a verbal slugfest, with even the central core friends behaving quite badly at times; all her characters deliver caustic, often barbed comments with the skill of a Jane Austen heroine.

Even today, Cukor's film remains a howl, its rarefied cattiness just as deliciously arch as the rat-a-tat tough guy (and gal) talk in the best 1940s and '50s noir thrillers. Point being, we're not intended to take anything all that seriously; Luce's women are deliberated exaggerated archetypes who take merciless glee while chewing up the scenery ... and each other.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Burn After Reading: Combustible!

Burn After Reading (2008) • View trailer for Burn After Reading
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, sexual content and relentless profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.12.08
Buy DVD: Burn After Reading • Buy Blu-Ray: Burn After Reading [Blu-ray]

Brad Pitt's Chad Feldheimer is worth the price of admission.

In a wickedly hilarious film laden with clueless characters, his numbskull fitness center employee is to die for: an arrested adolescent and (no doubt) high school drop-out, with a trusting, ingenuous smile, a little-girl giggle and an absolute refusal to allow his lack of wisdom or intelligence to interfere with even the wildest notion that might pop into his head.
Believing they have something of interest to the Russian Embassy, Chad
Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) dress nicely for
their first meeting with an obviously suspicious intermediary, who can't figure
out whether to take his two guests seriously, or dismiss them as lunatics. The
Russians aren't alone; as this story progresses, nobody knows quite what to
make of the opportunistic meatheads who populate this gleeful farce.

Chad's view of the world obviously is based solely on a youthful diet of movies and TV shows, and his beatific ignorance is a work of thespic art.

Watching this guy "help" fitness center patrons will make even the hardiest soul wince, because it's blindingly obvious that Chad's "expert advice" to unwary exercisers is anything but, and that his efforts to assist a customer while stretching and straining are likely to do actual physical harm.

Pitt is but one of the many delights in Burn After Reading, a welcome return to the exaggerated dark farce that the Coen brothers delivered so well in Fargo.

Burn After Reading doesn't have the core "straight" characters who also made Fargo so engaging; the primary players here are broadly drawn burlesques, with a few well-meaning innocent bystanders thrown in for contrast. The resulting film belongs in the company of Wag the Dog and Dr. Strangelove: pictures that mercilessly skewer the American political and intelligence networks with such gleeful panache that we're gulled into dismissing them as cynical larks ... while secretly hoping that things really aren't that bad.

The chaos begins on an average day at CIA headquarters in Arlington, Va., as mid-level analyst Osborne "Ozzie" Cox (John Malkovich) is ambushed by a demotion. Not one to take such news lightly, he resigns in a fit of profanity-laden pique and returns home to begin what he hopes will be some seriously scandalous memoirs.

Truth be told, his security clearance never was high enough for the CIA to be concerned about such stuff and nonsense, but hey, Ozzie's also not the sharpest pencil in the box. Merely the one with the nastiest temper.

Ozzie's sudden unemployment comes as an unpleasant surprise to his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), a pediatrician — and picturing this woman interacting with small children is another scary thought, once we get to know her — well into an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a mildly paranoid U.S. federal marshal married to a popular children's book author.

Harry also is a serial philanderer who gets nervous when Katie seizes on Ozzie's meltdown as the excuse to finally proceed with her long-planned divorce.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hamlet 2: Double trouble

Hamlet 2 (2008) • View trailer for Hamlet 2
1.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for teen drug use, brief nudity and considerable profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.11.08
Buy DVD: Hamlet 2

Steve Coogan can't act.

Not a lick.

And for a guy who has based his career on making people laugh, he's remarkably stiff, forced and humorless. Which I guess, in some circles, is supposed to make him amusing.
Hoping to bond with his new gaggle of streetwise students — like that could
ever happen! — drama instructor Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan, center) leads
them in a spirited movement exercise that eventually will be transformed into
some smutty dance moves.

I have struggled in vain to understand Coogan's rise to fame across the pond; the Brits simply adore him. Much of this seems based on his various TV shows, most notably his long-running performance as Alan Partridge. But like so many TV stars with delusions of grandeur, Coogan's fitful stabs at the big screen have been bewildering at best, and train wrecks at worst.

American fans most likely caught him as Phileas Fogg in 2004's ill-advised remake of Around the World in 80 Days, when he managed to make even the always- dependable Jackie Chan look bad. 2005's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story defied description. Since then, Coogan has delivered a few mild giggles with minor appearances in Night at the Museum, Hot Fuzz and this summer's Tropic Thunder.

Less is more, I suppose.

Coogan can be regarded as the British answer to our own Will Ferrell: Both so-called "actors" base their entire approach on the apparent belief that their mere delivery of a line makes it funny, no matter how random the words or clumsy the execution. Like Ferrell, Coogan constantly looks helpless and frequently flails his arms, as if begging for deliverance — or, more aptly, some intelligent direction — while shamelessly mugging the camera.

I can see this being fitfully successful during short TV blackout sketches, but stretching this nonsense across a 92-minute movie is demanding more patience than any audience should be expected to grant.

Hamlet 2, Coogan's newest, merely reinforces his weaknesses. He cannot for a moment credibly inhabit the central character in Andrew Fleming and Pam Brady's bumbling script, and here's the irony: Coogan's Dana Marschz is a failed actor who, having found no other way to succeed in Show Business, has resigned himself to teaching drama at a high school in Tucson, Ariz.

But Coogan is so bad an actor, that he can't even persuasively play a guy who's a bad actor.

One of the film's fitful running gags is the fact that nobody can properly pronounce Marschz's name; trust me, that's pretty much the height of humor.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Elegy: Love among the ruins

Elegy (2008) • View trailer for Elegy
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for nudity, sexual content and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.5.08
Buy DVD: Elegy

His 1997 Pulitzer Prize and 2001 American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal notwithstanding, Philip Roth seems doomed — in certain circles, anyway — to be remembered for his scandalous third novel, 1969's Portnoy's Complaint, and for his ongoing obsessions with promiscuity and Jewish angst.
Mindful of sexual harassment issues, college professor David Kepesh (Ben
Kingsley) always waits until the end of term before throwing a party for his
students. He always hopes to find at least one who will be properly intoxicated
by his worldly presence, but gets more than he bargained for with Consuela
Castillo (Penélope Cruz), who, during their initial conversation, reduces him to
schoolboy clumsiness. Fortunately, things will improve from here...

And, more recently, for succumbing to a perfectly natural desire to explore tales of aging men indulging in affairs with much younger women, which puts Roth in the equally excellent literary company of, say, John Updike. One cannot really fault a male literary lion who, upon reaching "a certain age," worries about his increasing obsolescence. Eventually (with luck), we all will.

Elegy, exquisitely adapted by screenwriter Nicholas Meyer from Roth's short novel, 2001's The Dying Animal, is the saga of a celebrated man of letters and cultural observer who, thanks to the proximity to young people granted by his day job as a college professor, embarks on a passionate affair with a former student.

The encounter proves revealing in many respects: some anticipated, others quite surprising.

But branding this film as nothing more than an "old guy beds Penélope Cruz" fantasy is an unjust snub that overlooks some phenomenal acting, the core truths of Roth's story and director Isabel Coixet's obviously sincere desire to respect both halves of this May/December romance.

David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) is, as he constantly reminds Consuela Castillo (Cruz), 30 years her senior. This seems all the explanation required to describe the apparent folly of allowing a pleasant one-night encounter to blossom into a relationship, but he's merely lying to himself; the truth of the matter — and we see this in Cruz's luminously expressive gaze — is that Consuela loves him and couldn't care less about the age gap.

He's the one with the hang-up, but the whole "age thing" is just an excuse.

Following an unsuccessful youthful marriage, Kepesh has spent the rest of his life trolling for deliberately short-term affairs, due — we're quickly led to believe — to his desire to live according to the sybaritic lifestyle that he believes is mankind's "normal" predilection. He repeatedly espouses this theory when interviewed, and during debates with his longtime best friend, poet George O'Hearn (Dennis Hopper).

In a film laden with revealing exchanges of dialogue, by the way, none are better than these comradely encounters between David and George. Kingsley and Hopper share a relaxed comfort that feels completely natural; we can't help wondering if this scripted familiarity is equally strong off-camera.

George obviously has David's number, and David knows it ... but puts up with it.

David fears intimacy and actual human contact, and believes himself incapable of both, because he intellectually insists mankind isn't wired for it. He admires early American hedonist Thomas Morton and has, in fact, over-analyzed the art of lovemaking to such an absurd degree that he has stripped love itself from the equation.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Erotic fantasy

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) • View trailer for Vicky Cristina Barcelona
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for earthy sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.4.08
Buy DVD: Vicky Cristina Barcelona • Buy Blu-Ray: Vicky Cristina Barcelona [Blu-ray]

I've often lamented about the utter inability of American directors to wrap their brains around European sexual sensibilities, whether remaking French sex comedies or simply navigating the terrain on their own.

Too often, the results lack the necessary je ne sais quoi that (for example) French or Spanish directors so perfectly capture in romantic comedies that invariably come populated with a huskily handsome fellow and not one, but two or three nubile cuties who seem perfectly content to share their man ... or even other.
Vicky (Rebecca Hall, left) and best friend Cristina (Scarlett Johansson),
vacationing in Barcelona, have just received an eye-opening offer from an
attractive Spanish artist, to spend a weekend with him; he promises good food,
good art and plenty of lovemaking. With, he optimistically hopes, both of his
guests. How Vicky and Cristina react to this offer, and what subsequently
happens, fuels this film's earthy eroticism (which, alas, remains rather
subdued, thanks to the PG-13 rating).

This isn't a problem with Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a film so thoroughly drenched in Spanish atmosphere and sexual laissez-faire that one would swear it had been made by Pedro Almodovar ... all the way down to that director's by now familiar fixation on star Penélope Cruz.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is — for the most part — a thoroughly charming and playfully erotic study of two young American women who get far more than they bargained for, when accepting an invitation to spend the summer in the deliriously romantic city of Barcelona.

But, much as we'd prefer not to be troubled by real-world issues, this film is, in fact, written and directed by Woody Allen, a cinematic artist whose fondness for very young women has become just as notorious as that displayed by Roman Polanski. In both cases, their fixation on gals barely out of their teens — or even younger — casts an unsettling pall over a project of this nature.

In order to better appreciate this film, I therefore had to willfully forget that it came from Allen's obviously lecherous sensibilities; who could forget Scarlett Johansson's breathtaking bathing suit "reveal" during a key moment of Allen's Scoop?

With Vicky Cristina Barcelona being Johansson's third Woody Allen film in four years, it's definitely safe to say that the filmmaker has found his newest muse — after Dianne Keaton and Mia Farrow — while Johansson has found her current mentor. Nothing wrong with that, except that Allen's various excuses to parade his young star in various levels of undress feels a bit like ... well ... stalking from behind a camera.

OK then, the obvious solution is to overlook Allen's involvement, and simply appreciate the film for its own languidly sensuous atmosphere. Trouble is, that's utterly impossible, because Vicky Cristina Barcelona is narrated throughout, and quite extensively ... by Christopher Even Welch, who most certainly is not Woody Allen.

And yet the often lengthy narrative monologues "read" just like Allen. It's profoundly distracting to keep hearing quintessential Woody Allen commentary emerging from somebody else's mouth. Why he'd have selected somebody else for all this narrative "fill" is utterly beyond me, but it's an intrusive distraction throughout the entire picture.

So now we have two things to overlook ... but, in fairness, those able to do so will be rewarded with a frequently charming, sexy and romantic interlude of the sort for which Eric Rohmer has remained so famous.