Friday, October 31, 2008

Rachel Getting Married: Toxic guest

Rachel Getting Married (2008) • View trailer for Rachel Getting Married
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, dramatic intensity, brief sensuality and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.23.08
Buy DVD: Rachel Getting Married • Buy Blu-Ray: Rachel Getting Married [Blu-ray]

I survived Robert Mitchum's psychopathic preacher from Night of the Hunter, albeit while peeking between my 9-year-old fingers.

I made it through the final scene in Carrie, back in the day before "gotcha epilogues" became a cliché. I marched into the night on wobbly legs after John Carpenter's first Halloween, but nonetheless moved under my own power. I weathered both the first Alien and Anthony Hopkins' debut performance as Hannibal Lecter, in Silence of the Lambs.
As the tumultuous weekend proceeds, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt, right)
becomes increasingly irritated by the behavior of her dysfunctional sister, Kym
(Anne Hathaway), who can't seem to survive without being the center of
attention. Rarely has sibling rivalry been more pregnant with unspoken
complaints and buried hostility ... and this is merely the beginning.

I also recall, at a young age when my parents should have known better, cowering behind an armchair as a giant spider — no doubt so hokey that I'd laugh at it today — menaced the jungle lord in one of Johnny Weissmuller's numerous grade-Z Tarzan entries. (Indiana Jones doesn't do snakes. I don't do spiders.)

But nothing has ever, ever scared me as much as Anne Hathaway's fumble for the microphone during the rehearsal dinner scene in Rachel Getting Married.

I didn't just want to crawl under the chair; I wanted to flee the county. Anything to prevent having to endure the slow emotional explosion about to erupt on the screen.

Director Jonathan Demme's new film, graced with a raw and sharply observant script from Jenny Lumet — daughter of director Sidney Lumet — is a painfully intimate examination of a dysfunctional family brought together for a wedding ceremony that takes place over one tumultuous weekend.

It's a fascinating, cleverly assembled film, and profoundly difficult to watch. On the one hand, I can't imagine recommending it as a good time at the movies; on the other hand, Hathaway delivers a starring performance that's as fearless, blunt and exposed as anything you're likely to see this year ... or next.

I'm generally not a fan of video verité; thus far, the gimmick has been employed mostly to conceal the weak, logically bankrupt storytelling in low-rent horror quickies like The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and the just-released Quarantine.

But just as it took a director with Alfred Hitchcock's chops to show how 3D cinematography really should be used — back in the 1950s, with Dial M for Murder — Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn have exploited high-def video in a way that not only makes perfect sense, but forcefully complements the story being told.

Indeed, about halfway through the film, I stopped noticing the jiggly camerawork and often under- or overexposed lighting, and felt like I had become part of the newly extended Buchman family celebration ... which, of course, was precisely Demme's intent.

What Just Happened: Nothing much

What Just Happened (2008) • View trailer for What Just Happened
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, brief (but shocking) violence, fleeting nudity and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.31.08
Buy DVD: What Just Happened • Buy Blu-Ray: What Just Happened? [Blu-ray]

I'm not sure it's possible for a film to satirize Hollywood at this late date.

Back in the days of Sunset Boulevard and The Bad and the Beautiful, Tinseltown was a largely mysterious dream factory that hypnotized Midwestern ingenues, discarded most of them, but nurtured a chosen few and made them stars who truly were, at the time, much larger than life.
While Ben (Robert De Niro, center) and the nebbishy Dick (John Turturro, right)
watch apprehensively, Bruce Willis (left, playing himself) places the first spade
full of dirt on the coffin of a Hollywood agent who unexpectedly took his life.

Scathing cinema indictments about the film industry therefore were greeted with curiosity and considerable interest, particularly when such pictures cut close enough to the bone to raise the wrath of studio bigwigs who worried that a composite character looked a little too familiar.

But we now live in a media fishbowl: an era of TV gossip shows such as Entertainment Tonight, where celebrity misbehavior and studio venality are as commonplace as beer and pretzels. Nothing about the process is secret or even mysterious any more; Terry Gilliam's heroic battle with Universal Pictures, over the integrity of his script for Brazil, has become the stuff of legend. Similar tales fill every issue of magazines such as Entertainment Weekly.

Even the subtler elements of filmmaking have become tabloid fodder, as when soundtrack composer Gabriel Yared broke the code of silence and orchestrated a public meltdown when his score for Troy was summarily dismissed and replaced by hackwork from James Horner. Such musical substitutions no longer are carefully guarded studio secrets; we now know all about Henry Mancini's rejected score for Hitchcock's Frenzy, or Alex North's rejected score for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Goodness, you can buy the latter score, and compare it to what Stanley Kubrick used instead.

All of which explains why What Just Happened, despite quite engaging performances from star Robert De Niro and several key supporting players, just isn't very interesting. Despite its wholly authentic pedigree — adapted by actual Hollywood producer Art Linson (The Untouchables, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Fight Club and last year's Into the Wild, among many others) from his wonderfully salacious memoir, What Just Happened: Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line — what emerges in director Barry Levinson's film is just a lot of been there, done that.

Let's see...

• A protagonist too married to his job to sustain any actual relationships: check.

• The obligatory poke at laughably stupid sessions with a shrink: check.

• An on-set tantrum by an overpaid star: check.

• The agent too cowed by his clients to rein in their narcissistic behavior: check.

• The nubile young cuties willing to sleep their way into a career: check.

• The devastated indie filmmaker who feels betrayed when ordered to re-cut the ending of his "challenging" film: check.

I'm actually tempted to read Linson's book, because I'm sure it's much more aggressively and hilariously outrageous than what he and Levinson have chosen to adapt here.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Pride and Glory: None of either

Pride and Glory (2008) • View trailer for Pride and Glory
One star (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, drug use, torture, nudity and relentless profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.30.08
Buy DVD: Pride and Glory • Buy Blu-Ray: Pride and Glory [Blu-ray]

Given the degree to which he micro-manages the films with which he's involved — going so far as to supply an uncredited script that helped shape this summer's The Incredible Hulk — I'm amazed that Edward Norton would have had anything to do with a flick as offensively tawdry as Pride and Glory.
Having just learned that three of his cop associates have been slaughtered, and
that a fourth lies near death in the hospital, Jimmy Egan (Colin Farrell, left)
broods while brother-in-law Ray (Edward Norton) offers comfort. Alas, we
quickly realize that Jimmy knows more than he's telling about the catastrophe,
as Ray — a seasoned detective — will discover on his own.

This laughably grotesque cop thriller would be more at home as a late-night original on Cinemax, where viewers expect little beyond mindless carnage.

I wasn't surprised to discover that this film had been sitting on a studio shelf for a few years. It should have stayed there.

Director Gavin O'Connor showed genuine potential with 2004's Miracle, which offered both a great story and a memorable performance from star Kurt Russell; it remains one of the best of this decade's many inspirational sports sagas. And while I can't fault a director who wants to stretch his wings, O'Connor obviously should have tried some other genre, because he's impressively unsuited for urban thrillers.

Norton can be an excellent actor; he absolutely isn't here. Either he gave up and phoned in his performance, or O'Connor lacked the ability to coax a better job out of his star ... or both.

Either way, the result is embarrassing.

The same is true of Colin Farrell, also capable of much better work, but here reduced to a stereotype so shopworn that it should have been retired 40 years ago: the opportunistic Irish cop gone bad, whose increasingly vile behavior threatens everything he holds dear, etc., etc.

I once thought Farrell had the makings of a promising career. After high-profile rubbish such as Alexander, Ask the Dust, Miami Vice and now this, I'm no longer certain.

Because, let's face it, at no time could this misbegotten script — credited to Gavin O'Connor, Gregory O'Connor and Robert Hopes, from a screenplay by Gavin O'Connor and Sacramento's own Joe Carnahan — have been anything but an artistic fiasco for any actor foolish enough to embrace it.

The broad strokes probably came from Carnahan; Pride and Glory bears the blend of violence and corruption that we'd expect from the guy who brought us Narc, Smokin' Aces and Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane.

Somewhere along the way, though, too many additional hands got involved; the result is a laughably ridiculous picture that's too stupid to be taken seriously, but not stylized enough to be passed off (or enjoyed) as high camp.

What Pride and Glory is, mostly, is a waste of time ... and, clocking in at slightly more than two hours, that's a lot of wasted time.

Friday, October 24, 2008

High School Musical 3: They want it all!

High School Musical 3 (2008) • View trailer for High School Musical 3
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.24.08
Buy DVD: High School Musical 3 • Buy Blu-Ray: High School Musical 3: Senior Year (Deluxe Extended Edition + Digital Copy + DVD and BD Live) [Blu-ray]

Hey, the kids have put on another show!

Although it takes almost half an hour to build the proper momentum, High School Musical 3: Senior Year demonstrates — and quite enthusiastically — that the franchise is well-equipped to make its leap to the big screen.
Is it their actual prom, or the prom-within-a-play? The lines blur quite cleverly
in this film, as four of our favorite characters — from left, Chad (Corbin Bleu),
Monique (Taylor McKessie), Gabrielle (Vanessa Hudgens) and Troy (Zac
Efron) — cut a rug in one of the many opulent production numbers.

Indeed, it seems genuinely sad that the film's finale hints at closure, as if — mirroring the transition its characters are making, from high school to various colleges — we'll never again see these fresh, apple-cheeked faces on the same stage again. Of course, that could well depend on box- office returns; if Johnny Depp can be persuaded to sign on for a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean entry, then I suppose Disney could somehow coax these talented young people into another round.

After all, the summers between college years offer at least three more opportunities, right?

Director/choreographer Kenny Ortega hasn't changed the formula a jot, which is both good and bad. Good, because the production numbers are just as inventive and irrepressibly buoyant; bad, because we've lost the first film's freshness.

It's not that the 10 new songs are any less sparkling than their predecessors; I remain impressed by the witty lyrics and clever rhymes, which hearken back to classics from the great American songbook. It's more a function of familiarity: Ortega stages his film in such a way that we know when it's time for a romantic pas de deux between Troy (Zac Efron) and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens); we can anticipate the angst-filled solos by Troy and Gabriella; we smell fresh betrayal in the wind when Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) glances with unholy glee toward the camera and gets set for one of her numbers.

(By the way, the decision to call Troy's power ballad "Scream" seems a questionable swipe from beat poet Alan Ginsberg's "Howl.")

No doubt this franchise's avid fans — many of whom audibly swooned, during Wednesday evening's preview, each time the camera zoomed for a close-up of Efron's enticing baby-blues — couldn't care less. But some of them did seem to notice the sugar-coated, overly sentimental tone that hung over the first two songs, and particularly the first duet between Efron and Hudgens.

I began to worry that Ortega had succumbed to a desire for too much schmaltz, which would have crippled this film. Fortunately, that cloying tone vanished utterly during the first splashy production number — a sensational, show-stopping ode to self-absorbed greatness by Sharpay and twin brother Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), appropriately titled "I Want It All" — and everything remained fine for the rest of the picture.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Secret Life of Bees: Strong buzz

The Secret Life of Bees (2008) • View trailer for The Secret Life of Bees
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.17.08
Buy DVD: The Secret Life of Bees • Buy Blu-Ray: The Secret Life of Bees [Blu-ray]

Certain historical flashpoints remain popular subjects for stories, because savvy authors recognize that we bring cultural awareness to the relationship between artist and audience: If the fictitious characters are constructed persuasively enough to co-exist with real-world events, the drama becomes even more intense.
August (Queen Latifah, left) is surprised to discover that Lily (Dakota Fanning)
doesn't fear the winged insects that fill the hives and produce the sweet honey
for which the Boatwright sisters have become famous. Indeed, Lily seems to
understand — in a deeply spiritual way — when August speaks reverently of
"the secret life of bees."

Director/scripter Gina Prince-Bythewood's deeply moving adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees is just such a story. Set in 1964 South Carolina, at a time when the rising civil rights movement actually made an already toxic racial environment even more combustible — because, to the hysterical rage of hard-core racists, African-Americans were daring to stand up for themselves — the narrative unfolds in a constant state of tension and suspense.

All sorts of bad things seem to await these good characters.

Grief battles with pragmatism and hope, in a film highlighted by strong performances that allow us intimate and at-times painful access to these characters and their thoughts. And, as was the case with To Kill a Mockingbird — with which this film shares both subject and tone — these events are filtered through the dawning awareness of a child, and her subsequent loss of innocence.

In the case of 14-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), she's not that innocent to begin with. As depicted in a brief but horrifying prologue, Lily believes herself responsible for her mother's death, years earlier, and has suffered ever since at the hands of a father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany), prone to casual cruelty.

T. Ray isn't exactly abusive, and we get a strong sense that he, too, is in a state of constant despair — such is the impressive subtlety of Bettany's performance — but that doesn't make his needlessly stern and unloving treatment of Lily any less heinous.

Things might be worse, were if not for the sheltering care extended by Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), who works for T. Ray and has become something of a surrogate mother to Lily. The girl, in turn, has grown to care for Rosaleen: enough to be quite concerned when the older woman quietly shares her intention to walk to a nearby town and register to vote.

Sadly, an almost inevitable encounter with some vicious white crackers goes as badly as could be expected.

Prince-Bythewood does not exploit this scene, but Rogier Stoffers' camera also doesn't flinch from it; we cannot help sharing Lily's sick and heavy-hearted reaction to what she witnesses. (Bullies are nothing new in the world, I realize, and yet I still find it difficult to comprehend that people would behave this way to another human being, based solely on skin color ... and that such behavior was considered acceptable, as recently as 44 years ago.)

Finally fed up with her own father, and worried about Rosaleen's likely future, Lily orchestrates a plan of escape and the two hit the road. Their destination — Tiburon, also in South Carolina — is governed solely by the fact that this town's name is printed on the back of one of the few mementos Lily has from her mother.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Wild Ocean 3D: Wild, indeed!

Wild Ocean 3D (2008) • View trailer for Wild Ocean 3D
Four stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.16.08

This film seriously rocks.

Recent IMAX ocean documentaries have been a mixed lot; Deep Sea 3D and Coral Reef Adventure were engaging and informative, while Sharks 3D and the laughably misnamed Ocean Wonderland were little more than grade-school science movies with delusions of grandeur.
On initial impact, the diving Cape gannets have a reasonable chance of spearing
and then devouring one of the billions of sardines that travel up the South
African coast. But if the birds miss this first shot, their clumsy underwater
movement makes it highly unlikely that they'll score a fish. Back into the air,
then, for another dive ... and then another, then another.

That's an important distinction. Although we're enjoying a renaissance of quality documentaries these days, the sheer volume allows one to be more selective; when the bar is set high with something like Young @ Heart, then other nonfiction films must work harder to justify their ticket prices.

Wild Ocean 3D does so. And then some.

Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas — who share credits as directors, writers, editors and soundtrack composers — have found a thoroughly fascinating wildlife phenomenon that takes place each year off the coast of South Africa. They've filmed it superbly and condensed what must have been hours and hours of raw footage into a 40-minute film that is, by turns, astonishing, educational, fascinating and downright exciting.

These thrilling images gain further power from a captivating, heavily percussive soundtrack — no surprise, when one is reminded that the multi-talented Cresswell founded the street performance group Stomp in 1991 — that is delivered at a volume sufficient to rattle your rib cage.

The film chronicles the annual migration of the billions of sardines that travel up South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal shoreline, known to locals as the "wild coast."

This migratory phenomenon used to take place all over the world, but (sadly) overfishing in the United States and elsewhere destroyed these massive sardine runs. They continue to exist now only off the coasts of South Africa and Portugal.

(I can't help thinking that these runs still exist in South Africa only because the entire region boasts an inhospitable coastline that never permitted the establishment of a harbor. Shall we call that geographical luck?)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Body of Lies: Truth or dare

Body of Lies (2008) • View trailer for Body of Lies
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, profanity and graphic torture
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.10.08
Buy DVD: Body of Lies • Buy Blu-Ray: Body of Lies (+ BD Live) [Blu-ray]

For all its concussive, eardrum-shattering explosions and a nasty contemporary plot certain to unsettle — if not terrify — viewers already worried about the spread of Islamic fanaticism, director Ridley Scott's new film is most persuasive during its quieter, conversational moments between two people ... proving once again that the foundation of good drama is character, character, character.
Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) first meets Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani) when
she begins his rabies therapy after a particularly vicious dog attack; he quickly
realizes that his interest in this kind, soft-spoken nurse is more than casual. But
is such a relationship wise, in a profession that puts him — and anybody he
knows — in harm's way?

And Body of Lies is filled with intriguing characters, all of them played quite persuasively by actors who do their best to stand out against Scott's perhaps too-eager inclination to ratchet up the tension with scenes of grisly, crowd-laden mayhem.

Indeed, the balance is wrong, during the scattershot first act, before all the players have been assembled on this story's chessboard; I began to worry that Ridley was unwisely imitating the insufferably tiresome visual tics and hiccups of his more bombastic but lesser-talented brother, Tony Scott.

Fortunately, cinematographer Alexander Witt's zigzag camerawork does settle down, and the prime movers in William Monahan's script — adapted from David Ignatius' chilling novel — are allowed to develop and coalesce. At this point, Body of Lies gets interesting and engage our minds, rather than simply trying to frighten us to death.

The primary relationship is one of distant opposites. Under deep cover and on the ground in Iraq, Jordan or Syria, CIA op Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) relies on razor-sharp instincts and language fluency to discover and infiltrate terrorist cells, and thus gain knowledge about — or even help prevent — destructive acts against innocent civilians.

Ferris takes his marching orders from, and is in constant contact with, seasoned handler Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), an insufferably pragmatic analyst whose big- picture views frequently collide with Ferris' intimate methods. Hoffman demands immediate results and will hasten the "development" (read: ruthless exploitation) of an "asset" (informant), even if this threatens long-term gains; Ferris is more willing to patiently nurture a source, believing that trust will reap more benefits than intimidation.

Their endless philosophical squabble takes place via the continuous cell phone conversations that link Ferris, bouncing hither and yon overseas, to Hoffman, based at Langley's CIA headquarters and outwardly living the life of an average suburban soccer dad. The incongruity of these long-distance dialogues, set against the actions of both men at any given moment — Ferris often chasing a suspect or fleeing for his life, Hoffman helping his young son make the transition to grown-up bathroom behavior — is deliberately ironic and always mordantly amusing. Talk about multi-tasking!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Duchess: Bird in a cage

The Duchess (2008) • View trailer for The Duchess
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor, sensuality and rape
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.9.08
Buy DVD: The Duchess • Buy Blu-Ray: The Duchess [Blu-ray]

Ah, the good ol' days, in Merry Olde England ... when men were men, and women were chattel.

Both a sumptuous period piece and a meaty dramatic vehicle for Keira Knightley, The Duchess also is, above all else, a terribly sad story. This fascinating glimpse of Georgiana Spencer, the famed 18th century Duchess of Devonshire, reveals that even London's most admired and imitated woman had no actual rights in an era when an aristocrat's wife existed for precisely one purpose: procreation.
The setting is benign, but appearances can be deceiving: Georgiana (Keira
Knightley, far right), having given birth to two daughters, gets no sympathy
even from her mother (Charlotte Rampling, far left) when the Duke of
Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) openly takes his wife's best friend, Bess (Hayley
Atwell) as a live-in mistress.

British director Saul Dibb's film — scripted by Dibb, Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen, and adapted from Amanda Foreman's acclaimed biography — casually and coldly presents an environment so repressed, so callous and so outrageously unfair, that modern viewers are apt to greet many of these details with disbelieving horror.

(Worse still, some cretins in last week's Sacramento preview audience, under the mistaken notion that such particulars were exaggerated for comic effect, snickered and laughed openly at all the wrong moments. Rarely have I wished more ferociously for a time machine, and the means to cast such Philistines back a few centuries ... on a one-way trip.)

Bad enough that the spirited and obviously intelligent Georgiana, far more passionate about the politics of the day than her blandly taciturn husband — a memorably malignant performance by Ralph Fiennes, about whom more in a moment — was forced to do little but sit and listen as the members of her beloved Whig party debated issues such as citizen freedom.

Worse still, for the "crime" of having borne her husband two daughters, that Georgiana had no choice but to tolerate her husband's decision to maintain an open ménage à trois with her best and only friend, Lady Elizabeth "Bess" Foster (Hayley Atwell), who was allowed — at the Duke's insistence — to live with them, as a sort of at-will courtesan, for the rest of the Duchess' life.

The first dinner scene, after this arrangement is set in stone — with the Duke and Duchess at opposite ends of an imposingly long table, and Elizabeth at the midpoint of one side, between them — is a chill nightmare.

"I demanded only two things from you, when we married," the Duke coldly tells Georgiana, on more than one occasion, "loyalty and an heir."

Blessed with a petite frame and figure that seem right at home in this era of tiny shoes and corseted waists, Knightley is introduced as 17-year-old Georgiana and several friends place a friendly wager on which of half a dozen eager young gentlemen will win a footrace. She exchanges significant glances with the winner, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), but whatever might have come to pass evaporates in the wake of a meeting between Georgiana's mother (Charlotte Rampling) and William Cavendish, the fifth Duke of Devonshire, who barter the girl's finer points as if she were a horse.