Friday, January 30, 2009

New in Town: Quirky coupling

New in Town (2009) • View trailer for New in Town
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too harshly, for fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.30.09
Buy DVD: New in Town • Buy Blu-Ray: New in Town [Blu-ray]

Successful romantic comedies are a particularly delicate soufflé.

While it's crucial to have a pair of engaging stars to strike flirtatious sparks against each other, the supporting characters are equally important: They must be interesting in their own right, but not overpowering. The British perfected this recipe years ago, and recent hits such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love, Actually are textbook examples of romantic leads surrounded by alternately hilarious and poignant friends, neighbors and family members.
With the holidays looming, Lucy (Renée Zellweger) matter-of-factly gives her
secretary (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) a brusquely professional cash bonus ... and is
astonished when the other woman responds by gifting her with a homemade
scrapbook. Try as she might, Lucy can't put a damper on the friendly overtures
extended because she's "new in town."

American filmmakers often put all their effort into the A-story and forget to populate their stories with the engaging support staff that could have transformed a routine pas de deux into a truly charming date flick.

Director Jonas Elmer and screenwriters Kenneth Rance and C. Jay Cox, I'm happy to report, did not make that mistake with New in Town.

Renée Zellweger's breezy romp is delightful from start to finish, both because she has a solid romantic "antagonist" in Harry Connick Jr. — the formula invariably demands that the eventual lovebirds hate each other at first sight — and because she has been plunked into the middle of an environment so whimsically droll, and so wonderfully filled with memorable sidebar characters, that the premise is impossible to resist.

It's as if Zellweger's Lucy Hill has been dropped into a community filled with people belonging to the same family as Frances McDormand's Oscar-winning character from Fargo. Just listening to all these folks talk is enough to put you on the floor.

Lucy is introduced in her native environment, as a determined and aggressively materialistic woman who lives in Miami and enjoys being on the fast track in corporate America. She therefore embraces the opportunity to demonstrate her worth by accepting the challenge of supervising the reconfiguration of a production plant that her company owns in Minnesota.

Armed with enough luggage — and bulging contents — to open her own outlet of Bergdorf Goodman, Lucy resolutely hops onto a plane.

Nothing, though, could have prepared her for little New Ulm, Minn.

For openers, the weather is paralyzing, and anybody who has experienced a Minnesota winter will smile with anticipation as Lucy eyes the outside weather, mutters "Oh, how bad can it be?" and prepares to step outside the airport terminal ... still dressed in her lightweight, impeccably coordinated Miami outfit.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Revolutionary Road: Long and grinding

Revolutionary Road (2008) • View trailer for Revolutionary Road
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, sexual content and brief nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.29.09
Buy DVD: Revolutionary Road • Buy Blu-Ray: Revolutionary Road [Blu-ray]

The moral of novelist Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, as presented by director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe, is that one had better be content with comfortable stability ... even if it can be perceived as boring or soul-deadening.

Rocking that boat — unwisely daring to believe in dreams of greener pastures — only leads to heartbreak. And much worse.
Freshly moved into their gorgeous suburban Connecticut home — rather large
for their (we assume) still limited means, but hey, that's Hollywood — and
armed with the ubiquitous cocktail and suffused with the glow of youthful
idealism, the newly married Frank and Kate Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and
Kate Winslet) vow never to become "ordinary," like all their obviously
unexceptional neighbors. Better to expect the sun to rise in the west and set
in the east, as the mill wheel of life in this film wears them down over time.

A sadly cynical view, and a heartbreaking film. But not, ultimately, a very persuasive one.

Although clearly intended as a 1950s-era bookend to his deliciously scathing indictment of the very late 20th century in 1999's Academy Award-winning American Beauty, Mendes fails to provide an all-important consistent tone in this new film. American Beauty succeeded because playwright Alan Ball's arch script dealt with a slightly exaggerated portrait of real life: one just warped enough to turn contemporary culture — and the roles we play — into a dark, perceptively pointed farce.

Revolutionary Road, on the other hand, is unrelentingly realistic ... except when it isn't. And that's a serious problem.

In terms of Yates' view that the so-called "Fabulous Fifties" were hardly as peacefully bucolic as sentiment would have it (unless one were white and wealthy), this story actually bears a much more striking resemblance to 2002's Far from Heaven, wherein Julianne Moore's initially complacent house wife found her marriage — indeed, her entire world — rent asunder by racism and her husband's unexpected brand of infidelity.

The difference is that Moore's character becomes a better person as a result of perceiving the hypocrisy of her environment, and then embracing the diversity her previously sheltered existence had denied: She accepts the outside world in all its complexity.

Frank and Kate Wheeler, in great contrast, retreat from the wider world and then destroy each other from within; their eventual fate is their own fault.

Doubly so, because they fail to avoid the so-called "conventional" lifestyles that they mock after first meeting, and then marrying, as idealistic twentysomethings.

We're introduced to Frank and Kate (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, reuniting for the first time since Titanic) well into their marital crisis, as angry words hurl back and forth, wholly at odds with the quiet charm of their suburban Connecticut home.

The problem is role-playing: The artistic Kate can't stand the drudgery of housework, and being cooped up all day, with no outlet but the prospect of socializing with other, similarly trapped women ... all of whom smoke and drink too much when they do get together. But even here, early on, Mendes seems to overplay his hand: Watching Kate pull out the trash can while wearing a dress and low heels seems less an observation about the way she feels she must present herself in public, and more a snarky echo of Barbara Billlingsley's equally overstated wardrobes on television's Leave It to Beaver.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Inkheart: Somewhat stained

Inkheart (2008) • View trailer for Inkheart
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for quite a lot of scary action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.23.09
Buy DVD: Inkheart • Buy Blu-Ray: Inkheart (+ BD-Live) [Blu-ray]

Some movies are curious creatures, and Inkheart is a perfect example.

Director Iain Softley's adaptation of Cornelia Funke's best-selling novel is handsomely mounted, with a top-drawer cast, sumptuous production values and quite believable special effects. The story itself, scripted by David Lindsay-Abaire with Funke's participation, is a clever pastiche of beloved fairy tales, and a tribute to the sense of wonder that books can awaken in readers young and old.
After being confronted by a wealth of fantastic events, Mo (Brendan Fraser) and
his daughter, Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett), hope for answers and suggestions
from Elinor (Helen Mirren) ... but get little beyond rambling speeches. Try as
it might, this film simply doesn't deliver the magic one expects from such
an engaging premise.

All the necessary elements are present, and the movie should deliver the same edge-of-the-seat suspense that Funke's 2004 book brought to so many happy fans (who then went on to devour the two sequels, 2005's Inkspell and last year's Inkdeath).

And yet...

Softley's film is oddly soulless. Genuine tension is frequently absent, because some of the actors simply don't sell the material all that persuasively. (Paul Bettany is a vibrant exception; he's sensational.) In star Brendan Fraser's case, the problem could be too much familiarity; after three Mummy installments and last summer's Journey to the Center of the Earth, his "wise-cracking reluctant hero" schtick is wearing rather thin.

As for Helen Mirren, she's inhabiting some other film entirely. Her character's stream-of-consciousness monologues are pointless and mildly annoying, and Softley's handling of Mirren is clumsy and even embarrassing at times. What's the point of hiring an actress of her caliber, if she's not given anything important to do?

The other problem, also having to do with familiarity, isn't this film's fault. It should be noted that Adam Sandler's recent Christmas vehicle, Bedtime Stories, bears a highly uncomfortable resemblance to the central gimmick in Funke's books: the notion that reading/telling a story aloud brings its ingredients — characters, settings, random bric-a-brac — to life in our "real" world.

Two such film fantasies, arriving right on top of each other? Somebody's been reading somebody else's mail again...

(Not long into this film, readers of Jasper Fforde's popular Thursday Next novels also will discover similarities between the two series. For the record, Funke's books are aimed at young readers, while Fforde's offerings — and their endless use of hilariously awful puns and wordplay — are much more adult.)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Defiance: Fighting back

Defiance (2008) • View trailer for Defiance
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for war violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.22.09
Buy DVD: Defiance • Buy Blu-Ray: Defiance [Blu-ray]

Daniel Craig's steely gaze, given more intensity by his impossibly blue eyes, often snatches the focus from the grim events depicted in Defiance.

Director Edward Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond) obviously recognizes the power of Craig's noteworthy feature; the camera certainly cuts to the man's eyes often enough. Maybe too often: It's one of a few "movie star hiccups" that occasionally pulls us out of the otherwise fascinating story being told in this WWII drama.
Although believing that their forest encampment is sufficiently concealed, Nazi
planes spot them anyway, forcing Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig, center) to help
his many Jewish followers flee from a rain of bombs. Unfortunately, the
bombers are but one aspect of a campaign to flush all these people out into the
open, where infantry can cut them down...

2008 was a rich year for Nazi and Holocaust dramas, particularly because most delved into events and psychological readings never before brought to the big screen. As I mentioned when reviewing director Stefan Ruzowitsky's The Counterfeiter last spring, I remain fascinated by the number of compelling "new" stories — not really new at all, of course; merely unheralded until now — that continue to emerge from that most horrible time in German/European history.

Defiance is no different. Zwick and co-scripter Clay Frohman, working from events recounted in Nechama Tec's nonfiction book of the same title, eschew the usual cliché of Jews as complacent victims waiting in ghettos and death camps, to focus instead on a group of resourceful Eastern European civilians who fought back: courageously, cleverly and for the duration of the war.

It's the saga of largely unsung heroes Tuvia (Craig) and Zus (Liev Schreiber) Bielski, who grew up with younger brother Asael (Jamie Bell) on a family farm in Stankevich, in what now is Belarus but in the 1940s — by which time all three were adults — was part of the Soviet empire. Tuvia and Zus, both imposing and charismatic, were known as troublemakers with an aversion to authority.

They therefore were targeted for quick execution when the Nazis invaded in June 1941. But while the German SS and collaborating Stankevich police killed the Bielskis' parents and other family members — including Tuvia's wife and their infant daughter — all three brothers escaped to the local woods, a vast, thickly overgrown area they had known since childhood.

Determined at first to form a partisan group to fight the Nazi occupation, Tuvia and Zus instead wound up gathering any and all fleeing Jews into their ever-expanding encampment. With Tuvia as leader, the group embraced the commitment to save as many Jews as possible: men, women, children, elders ... everybody.

And here's the amazing part: Until the publication of Frohman's book, nobody knew much of anything about the Bielskis or the astonishing degree to which their ambitious plan succeeded.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Last Chance Harvey: No chance at all

Last Chance Harvey (2008) • View trailer for Last Chance Harvey
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and quite stupidly, for brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.16.09
Buy DVD: Last Chance Harvey • Buy Blu-Ray: Last Chance Harvey [Blu-ray]

This is roughly half a movie … and not a very satisfying one, at that.

Actually, Last Chance Harvey feels more like a work in progress: an intimate stage play still being shaped, and clearly missing continuity and closure.
Having been persuaded by new friend Kate (Emma Thompson) to attend the
reception that follows his daughter's wedding — despite not being allowed to
walk her down the aisle — the nervous and far too unassuming Harvey (Dustin
Hoffman) wonders how to handle the fact that his ex-wife's new husband keeps
hogging the microphone.

Stars Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson give it their all, but writer/director Joel Hopkins' script is insubstantial, predictable, contrived, mawkishly sentimental and guilty of dramatic theft; one plot point is "borrowed," in all relevant ways, from 1957's An Affair to Remember (perhaps best remembered these days for the way it's referenced in Sleepless in Seattle).

Mostly, though, the story here just isn't very interesting. Watching Hoffman and Thompson interact as lonely singles is engaging; neither is capable of a bad performance, and their acting nuances — Hoffman's too-quick, nervous smile; Thompson's wary eyes, which bespeak repeated disappointment — certainly establish engaging characters capable of holding our attention.

But this film gives them very little to do, and the script lacks any of the tension or dramatic arcs that normally would hold our attention. The result, particularly in the wake of a frustratingly abrupt conclusion, looks more like an acting exercise: something disconnected from actual narrative, and existing solely as a classroom experience.

New York-based professional musician Harvey Shine (Hoffman) is on the verge of losing his dead-end job as a composer of TV commercial jingles; too much of what used to be craft has been farmed out to computer-based scores, and our hero's boss (Richard Schiff) warns that his current pending gig could be the last one.

Obviously unsettled, Harvey nonetheless hops a plane and crosses the pond to London, where his daughter — Liane Balaban, as Susan — is getting married. For reasons never really made clear, Harvey is almost completely estranged from not only Susan, but his ex-wife (Kathy Baker) and all their former friends.

Indeed, Harvey is booked into a hotel by himself, while the rest of the wedding party is lodged together elsewhere … an outrageously cruel act — and wholly unwarranted, given this film's absence of justification — that the mugwumpish Harvey accepts philosophically. Worse yet, Susan waits until the rehearsal dinner, that evening, to tell Harvey that she has "bumped" him by asking her stepfather (James Brolin) to walk her down the aisle.

And we're supposed to view Susan as anything approaching a sympathetic character?


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Frost/Nixon: Battle royale

Frost/Nixon (2008) • View trailer for Frost/Nixon
Five stars (out of five). Rating: R, and rather too harshly, for profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.15.09
Buy DVD: Frost/Nixon • Buy Blu-Ray: Frost/Nixon [Blu-ray]

"And the American people?"

David Frost's question, although hardly a surprise when it emerges during the climactic fourth interview, nonetheless seems to catch his subject off-guard.
Despite the increased agitation of his research team — from right, journalist Bob
Zelnick (Oliver Platt), author James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and veteran
producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) — David Frost (Michael Sheen, far
left) refuses to believe he'll be outmatched, outgunned and outfoxed when former
U.S. President Richard Nixon faces him during the first of four upcoming
interviews. Frost quickly discovers, however, that he has much to learn about
shrewd, skilled subjects with agendas of their own.

And in that moment, as his features sag slightly, and his eyes betray a blend of surrender and wan hope — perhaps redemption really does come from baring one's soul? — actor Frank Langella ceases to exist. We are, instead, witnessing the crumbling of former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon.

The transformation, creeping up on us throughout director Ron Howard's Frost/ Nixon, is complete. And astonishing.

It's a fascinating performance, all the more so because Langella doesn't really look a thing like Nixon. But the actor clearly studied every facial tic and physical mannerism, from the slightly stooped walk to the jowly frown that forever seemed poised between censure and admiration. Langella radiates the sense of Nixon, every facet of the man's complex personality either on view or slyly suggested.

("I was determined not to do an impression," Langella explains, in the press notes. "I looked in him for the thing I look for in every character I play: What is his soul about?")

Langella has had plenty of practice, since both he and Michael Sheen — as Frost — starred when playwright/screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland) debuted this stage drama at London's Donmar Warehouse in August 2006. Following a subsequent transition to Broadway, Langella won a Tony Award for best actor in a drama.

It's easy to see why.

Aside from the eerie sense that we're witnessing some resurrection of Richard Nixon in Frank Langella's body, the actor also manages the near impossible: He actually engenders sympathy for a man it has become fashionable to despise. Despite the oily, unctuous manner; despite the naked, self-serving desire — glittering in Langella's eyes — to engage in what he imagines will be damage control, simply to revive a reputation in tatters; despite all the glib maneuvering that prompted the feared nickname of "Tricky Dick," this man emerges as a tragic figure.

Perhaps no less reviled, but pathetic nonetheless.

Langella's performance is one of the two amazing aspects of Howard's film. The other, thanks to the clever way Morgan orchestrates his script in three acts — prologue and establishing maneuvers; hideous battle of unequals; revelatory climax — we're on the edge of our seats in tense anticipation, despite knowing with certainty how these events eventually play out.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Gran Torino: Compelling ride

Gran Torino (2008) • View trailer for Gran Torino
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence and pervasive profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.9.09
Buy DVD: Gran Torino • Buy Blu-Ray: Gran Torino (+ BD-Live) [Blu-ray]

Loneliness can be painful beyond endurance.

In the case of Walt Kowalski, taciturn by nature and isolated by choice and circumstance, solitude has magnified his worst characteristics and all but destroyed his better nature. Gran Torino opens as Walt buries his beloved wife, obviously hating to put himself on public display during the church service and food-laden reception that demand his personal participation.
Hoping to "man up" his young neighbor, and help the teenage Theo (Bee Vang,
left) develop some swagger and self-confidence, Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood,
right) coaches the boy in the proper art of filthy male banter, using his own
good-natured prickly relationship with Martin (John Carroll Lynch) as an
example. The results prove quite amusing.

Dismayed by his adult sons and their families — and most particularly by a self-centered teenage granddaughter who lacks the respect to dress properly in church (a deftly sketched character whom we love to hate on sight!) — Walt's reflexive expression is a perpetual sneer of disgust, curled lip matching a hostile stare and simmering burn so volcanic that it could melt the polar ice cap.

In short, a perfect role to mark the return of Clint Eastwood as actor.

At first glance, we might imagine that Walt could be "Dirty" Harry Callahan at the tail end of a long and discouraging career, but that's far too superficial; Kowalski's demons are more complicated, and buried far deeper. As the film progresses, we gradually learn of Walt's Korean War service, and his inability to move past the awful memories of that kill-or-be-killed environment.

Initially, though, we're much too amused — and dismayed — by Walt's short temper and reflexive, contemptuous intolerance; the man slings ghastly racial slurs like most people use nouns and verbs. He proudly maintains his home and yard in a neighborhood once filled with people he knew as friends and fellow auto plant workers; now, most of the other dwellings have gone to seed, and many are inhabited by Hmong immigrants Walt lacks the perception or willingness to separate from the faceless Asians he fought in Korea.

In short, Walt has no use for anybody: not his estranged family, not the baby-faced priest determined to punch through Kowalski's reserve, and particularly not for the gangbanging Asian, Latino and African-American teens who, he feels, typify all the other unwanted people who have "invaded" his neighborhood.

But because this is Eastwood, who long ago perfected the ability to draw depths of emotion from stoic reserve, we see beyond the mask, and to the pain beneath. Although determined to maintain appearances, Walt is doing no more than marking time: sitting on his porch with a daily 12-pack of beer and his faithful dog, growling while the pooch remains silent, growing progressively more discouraged by the world around him ... and waiting to die.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Spirit: Pale imitation

The Spirit (2008) • View trailer for The Spirit
One star (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and overly generously, despite lots o' gore, violence and gruesome content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.8.09
Buy DVD: The Spirit • Buy Blu-Ray: The Spirit (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy and BD Live)

Artistic sensibilities don't always mesh, and that must be recognized in the collaborative world of filmmaking.

It has nothing to do with respective ability; both individuals can be extremely talented, and yet be a bad "fit."
With dead cops on his hands and no firm leads, Commissioner Dolan (Dan
Lauria, right) isn't the slightest bit pleased with the vigilante tactics employed
by The Spirit (Gabriel Macht, left). Fresh-faced recruit Morgenstern (Stana
Katic), on the other hand, is cheerfully certain that everything will work out for
the best. Too bad the same can't be said of this film.

One would not (for example) assign Quentin Tarantino to adapt a Jane Austen novel. By the same token, John Sayles — known for intelligent and thought-provoking indie fare such as Lone Star and Passion Fish — would be all wrong for a mindless summer blockbuster.

And so it is that graphic novel impresario Frank Miller — the undeniable genius behind Sin City, 300 and Batman's comic book revival in 1986's The Dark Knight Returns — is wrong, wrong, wrong for the task of bringing Will Eisner's iconic Spirit to the big screen.

Miller's starkly garish approach to visual stylization, and most particularly his bleak view of human behavior, are wholly at odds with Eisner's much gentler characters and far more whimsical storytelling.

The result is a mess: a crazy-quilt effort to re-invent The Spirit as yet another inhabitant of Miller's Sin City universe. This film is all but unwatchable, its jokey characters wholly at odds with the vulgar plotline, its actors buried beneath the wholly computer-generated backdrops also employed for the film versions of Sin City and 300.

Never mind that such artifice is entirely wrong for The Spirit, whom Eisner deliberately placed on the believably mean streets inhabited by so many weary gumshoes in 1940s and '50s film noir thrillers. More aggravatingly, Miller's vision here is so uniformly dark — so starkly black and white, aside from occasional splotches of color (notably The Spirit's bright red necktie) — that it's difficult to see what's happening from one scene to the next.

It's a pity Miller didn't go all the way, and darken the screen to solid inkpot black. Then we'd have been spared watching the whole grisly thing.

Yes, this film actually is worse than the laughably corny 1987 TV movie with Sam Jones. At least than one got the tone right.